From the Archives

And from the beginning of time, gals like Blonda have scorned young men who courted them with painfully good manners and punctilious handwriting. Correct usage aside, “I did not except” pretty much tells the tale—one excruciating evening with poor Mr. Huston was enough.

Missives like Huston’s were the functional equivalent of texting during the first two decades of the 20th century, fired off regularly by the men up on College Hill to the fair prospects below at Shepardson College for Women, now Denison’s lower campus. The miniature envelopes with penny stamps and the designation “Town” were delivered to Stone, King, and Burton Halls, requesting a walk together at two o’clock on Tuesday next, or a date for a party at one of the fraternities. Women’s scrapbooks of the era are filled with these small white trophies of hopeful gentlemen callers.

Miss Watt’s trail of envelopes tracks a lively association for the rest of the year with a Phi Gam named Paul, whom she joined in crazy “schemes,” but Paul wasn’t future-husband material. In the end, Blonda took a scientific turn—a career at Owens-Corning Laboratory, and a marriage to classmate Clarence Coons, who would become chair of Denison’s department of physics.

In Their Words

Shortly after Commencement, I received an email from a new graduate who recently had started a prestigious training program. She wrote to say that she was thriving. “I came with an automatic advantage over my peers,” she wrote. “At Denison my courses and professors molded me into a well-rounded citizen who knows how to think critically and solve problems by looking at situations from multiple perspectives. I am prepared to engage in discussions on controversial topics because I have been taught to listen and respect others’ opinions, form respectful and intellectual responses, and then properly articulate my views. I have been exposed to aspects of history, philosophy, research, countless authors, and contemporary issues that many of my peers have never heard of. I have learned how to develop deep, meaningful relationships with both peers and faculty members and how to maintain those relationships. Denison has given me the confidence to speak my mind and challenge others. Denison has taught me to be proud of who I am and where I came from, but that I should value, embrace, and learn from those who are different.”

Her email struck me, because it speaks to why higher education matters and why Denison is a great college. It also speaks to a few of the big issues that seem to be floating around the media as they address the current state of higher education.

First, Denison does a fantastic job of helping students learn to think for themselves. One of our senior faculty members describes Denison as a place that instills self-determination in students. We do not teach students what to think or how to live their lives; we teach them how to think and give them the tools to build their own lives.

Second, Denison students know how to listen, hear, and learn. In a world plagued by the inability of people to hear a different view, our students often seek alternative perspectives as a way to sharpen their own opinions.

Third, our students excel in challenging situations, and they are willing to step up to perform. The student who sent me that email finished by stating that other members of her training program sought her out for advice, especially on the performance aspects of the program, in which students stand up and present. Our students are focused on a range of academic interests, and they are deeply immersed in campus activities as athletes, artists, and community builders. In the midst of this varied experience, they are challenged to actively engage and perform. There are very few students at Denison who are not engaged and challenged in a variety of ways both inside and outside the classroom. So much of higher education in the U.S. continues to be passive. We sit in seats while people talk at us. We sit in stadiums and watch other people perform as athletes and artists. Denison, however, is a place for active learning.

To think for oneself, one has to be exposed to a range of different views. At Denison this happens as students are trained across many disciplines. This breadth runs counter to the trend in most of higher education, which is pushing students into narrower and narrower programs.

Intellectual breadth also develops as our students are exposed to a range of peers. This is one of the advantages of our location. Given our Midwestern base of students, and strong Northeastern, Northwestern, Mid-Atlantic, and growing Southern and international populations, we have students with vastly different life experiences and worldviews learning from each other.

Shortly after I received the new graduate’s email, a senior member of our faculty wrote to me about the pride he took in watching some recent alumni perform at a public event. He wrote that watching the group “reaffirmed how effective we are at turning out graduates who are poised and engaging. I was struck by the facility with which our alumni performed. While this is not atypical for Denison graduates, it is extremely rare among other young people. I felt extremely lucky to be at Denison.”

That goes hand in hand with another note I received from one of our athletics coaches. “At our best moments, we provoke, inspire, and demand of our students. We challenge them to get out of their comfort zones, move away from our myopic view of the world, and take a chance on believing they might have more to offer than they think they do,” he wrote. “We do self-discovery well.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Imagine a World Without Failure

We are a culture that reveres perfection.

In his autobiography, Founding Father Ben Franklin reported that he “wished to live without committing any fault at any time,” devoting himself to an arduous program of self-improvement. Countless corporate titans have embraced the all-but-impossible “Six Sigma” standards that allow for failure just once in every 300,000 attempts. And comedy empires have been built on our desire to mock failures in DIY (pinterestfail.com), grammar (apostrophecatastrophe.com), and technology (damnyouautocorrect.com).

But humans will never be automatons. Failure and mistakes are inevitable. And sometimes, even beautiful. Some of the most famous works of Michelangelo, perhaps the most celebrated artist in history, are riddled with tiny errors. The point? Even the most amazing talents of all time make mistakes and do things that others might call failures. But then they find ways to transform those mistakes and failures into stunning achievements.

We asked Denison faculty and staff to riff on inventions and ideas born of accidents—and how those accidents changed the world for the better.

It’s Official

Kim Mallarnee Coplin ’85, associate professor of physics and astronomy, was appointed interim provost at Denison in 2013, as the college worked to replace former Provost Brad Bateman, who left Denison to assume the presidency at Randolph College in Lynchburg, Va. In August, the college announced that Coplin would permanently assume the role of provost after a private search consultant conducted interviews with Coplin, faculty, staff, and board members, subsequently recommending the appointment. Coplin joined Denison’s faculty in 1993 and served the college as associate provost from 2006 to 2013. She holds a Master of Arts degree from Johns Hopkins University and a doctorate in physics from Ohio State University.

Bragging Rights

Rising Up the Ranks
Up from its ranking of 130th last year, Denison was ranked by Forbes magazine as No. 95 on its list of “America’s Top Colleges.” This catalog of 650 American colleges considers all U.S. colleges in its ranking rather than segmenting public from private, large from small, or graduate from baccalaureate. Denison is listed above the University of Richmond, Sarah Lawrence College, and Furman University.

Doobie, Doobie, Doo
(and other accolades)
The Princeton Review recently highlighted Denison in its 2015 “Best 379 Colleges” listing. The publication also includes the college on its lists of “Best Value Private Colleges,” “Best Midwestern Colleges,” and “Green Colleges.” WDUB (aka The Doobie) was named one of the best college radio stations by The Princeton Review, as well.

America’s Teachers
Denison was again recognized by Teach for America as one of its top sources of new teachers. This year, 10 alumni joined the teaching corps, tying Denison with nine other schools, including Colgate, Grinnell, and The College of Wooster as the ninth-highest contributing undergraduate institutions with fewer than 2,999 students.

Denison’s Distinct Diversity
In a recent ranking of America’s “Most Economically Diverse Top Colleges,” The New York Times listed Denison as No. 11, just behind such schools as Harvard (No. 5) and Columbia (No. 7). The ranking is fitting for Denison, where one in five students comes from a low-income family, and a similar number of students are the first in their families to attend college.

Top Tier
Denison maintained its top-tier position, placed at No. 51, in the U.S. News and World Report rankings of “Best Colleges 2015,” which defines the “nation’s best 249 liberal arts colleges.” It also made the short list of “10 Colleges and Universities Where Merit Aid is Most Common.”

Varsity D Turns 40

In any given year, there are roughly 500 Denison students competing in varsity athletics. Some do it for a year or two. Some become team captains and four-year letter winners. Some even become All-Americans. Only the smallest percentage of Denison student-athletes enter the Hall of Fame.
Denison’s Varsity D Association celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2014, and all Hall of Fame members were invited back to campus for this year’s Big Red Weekend festivities, which took place in September.
Friday’s induction dinner featured a crowd of nearly 200 inside Mitchell Fieldhouse. After President Adam Weinberg’s opening remarks, keynote speaker and 2006 inductee John Robic ’86 addressed the crowd. Robic is beginning his sixth season as assistant men’s basketball coach at the University of Kentucky. A veteran of the Division I men’s basketball coaching since his graduation from Denison, Robic has had stops at Kansas, Massachusetts, Memphis, and Youngstown State, where he was head coach from 1999 to 2005. In his 27-year coaching career, Robic has spent 17 seasons as an assistant to current Kentucky head coach John Calipari.
After Robic’s talk, it was time to recognize the class of seven new inductees into the Varsity D Association Hall of Fame. They are Steve Garnett ’97 (football and men’s lacrosse), Lauren Gerlach ’04 (women’s tennis), Dana Grandmaison-Gilligan ’02 (women’s soccer), Grant Jones ’88 (football), Adam Mandel ’04 (baseball), Peter Royer ’02 (men’s lacrosse) and Tamara Carty Tenney ’03 (women’s swimming).
To close the night, all Varsity D Association members who were in attendance at the event were presented with a framed replica of the Hall of Fame plaque that is featured prominently in the renovated Mitchell Center.
On Saturday, the hall-of-famers attended various alumni functions and were recognized at halftime of the Denison-Ohio Wesleyan football game. The Big Red didn’t let their alumni athletes down—they took down the Battling Bishops with a score of 34-31.—Craig Hicks

Monomoy’s New Look

When the Weinbergs first moved into Monomoy, they approached Denison Museum staff about using the home to highlight the museum’s activities and the university’s diverse art collections. While the Weinbergs liked many of the works the staff chose for them, one was sent back within a week. In a home in which children are at play—often with the Weinbergs’ energetic puppy, Ellie—it made sense to remove a vase made by an internationally recognized Native American potter. From that point on, art has been carefully selected to fit the family’s lifestyle (which includes playdates, puppies, and lots of guests) and to showcase the work of students and faculty. And now, curating museum objects in Monomoy is an official learning experience in the form of the Monomoy Curatorial Internship through the Denison Museum.

For two years now, a student has been selected to work closely with museum staff and the Weinbergs to choose, prepare, and clean pieces for the home, pinpoint locations for display, assist with installation, and compile an interpretive brochure. After a summer spent developing a basic understanding of the museum’s collection and undergoing training from museum staff, this year’s intern, Gretchen Giltner ’16, an art history and biology double major, got to work bringing pieces from the Museum to the big house on Broadway.

Monomoy guests are now welcomed in the foyer by a portrait of a woman that was created using custom-made melted crayons. The piece, by Christian Faur, director of collaborative technologies for the fine arts, is a bit of a mystery to Giltner. “[Faur] never told us who it is,” she says, “so that makes it more mysterious.” The foyer and the “blue room” feature antique physics instruments from the study collection; there’s a triptych by Kristie King ’14 of her great-grandparents, Isabelle Smock Henson ’28 and Henry Brumback Henson ’29, as well as former Denison President Avery Shaw.  Monomoy also displays four colorful pieces by Tay Cha ’07, courtesy of the Margaret Windisch Endowed Student Art Fund.

The Monomoy exhibition will be on display throughout the academic year. Guests to the president’s house also will have the chance to learn more about the artwork through programming and a brochure created by Giltner, with input from museum staff and the Weinbergs, “since,” says Giltner, “it is their home.” 

The Secret Lives of Professors

Strings Coordinator and Chair of the Music Department Andy Carlson is good with his hands. A classical violinist, Carlson sings and plays guitar for the rockabilly band La-Z-Boy & the Recliners, is the founder of Denison’s Bluegrass Festival (now in its 11th year), and has been the state fiddle champion of Georgia (twice) and Ohio.

In addition to his musical accolades, Carlson is a master fisherman, spending hundreds of hours on his boat in northern Wisconsin every summer. “As a violinist, I probably shouldn’t be doing stuff like cutting hooks,” says the 16-year faculty member with a laugh.

Carlson’s prey of choice is the muskellunge (or musky), North America’s largest predatory game fish, known as the fish of 10,000 casts for its rarity and intermittent eating patterns. We had to bite and ask this professor about his secret life as a great northern fisherman.

When did you start fishing? I’ve been fishing longer than I’ve been playing music. My dad is an absolute fanatic fisherman. Family vacations always were fishing trips up North.

What’s so special about the musky? I was fishing for northern pike one day, and a 45-inch musky came up behind my lure. I was more nervous than when I was performing for a thousand  people. And then he just dropped off. I knew I had to learn how to catch these things. Now that’s all I fish for. Actually, fishing is a large factor behind my career decision.

Really? How so? As long as there is an airport nearby, I can be anywhere and continue performing. I have a small cabin where I fish on Lower Eau Claire Lake, 40 miles south of Duluth, Minn. Everything is set up there so I can hit the door and launch a boat. All I’ve got to do is take a toothbrush, and even that is optional.

Is your music connected to your fishing? Absolutely. The thing that makes me a successful fisherman is what makes me a successful musician: establishing a steady practice routine. I also write a lot of my music at the lake. I love its rhythms and sounds—the bald eagles’ nest across the lake, the haunting loons at night, the way the lake looks like ink when you’re coming across it at 2:00 in the morning. The atmosphere is like a mental tonic for me.

Do you have a favorite catch? Yes, but it belongs to my son, Nathaniel. There’s a dam coming out of my lake, and muskies from the river hang out below it. Two years ago, we rode our bikes past the dam and saw a huge musky. Of course, we ran to grab the rods. He did one cast: nothing. A second cast: nothing. But on the third cast, the water exploded. It was a violent strike. I’ve got this 12-year-old holding on to this great big rod with a 47-inch fish on the end; he could barely lift it but he landed that fish.

You sound proud. My sons are excellent fishermen, which is fun because it’s something that I learned from my dad. Nathaniel’s older brother, Christopher, caught his own 47-incher a year later. My personal best is 51 inches. I caught that one during fall break 2012, took a picture, and let it go, like we do with all of our muskies.

A Love Story

Carolyn Morey and Teall Edds went for a walk.

It was 1985, and they had just met. They were both high school students who were on campus with their parents for Denison’s Homecoming, spending the evening in the living room of Marilyn and Bill Dresser ’51, then professor of communication. Teall’s mother, Dyanne Adams Edds ’62, had been a babysitter for the Dresser family back in the day. And Carolyn’s father was on the Denison faculty.

Later, Carolyn recalls, during that walk around campus with Teall, she thought: I wonder if we’ll end up here.

They did.

The choice to attend Denison made sense for both of them, really. In some ways, it already felt like home. Carolyn had grown up on campus. And three generations of his family had preceded Teall at the college. Not surprisingly, the two started dating after that initial meeting in the Dressers’ home.

After they graduated from Denison, they moved together to New York. And then they came back to campus on Aug. 24, 1991, to go for yet another walk—this time down the aisle of Swasey Chapel. They were married before a crowd of 100, including many Denison faculty and staff, as well as some alumni (Lisa Russell ’90, Jennifer Spring Goss ’90, and Todd Lawlor ’91 were members of the bridal party).

When Marilyn Dresser stood to speak at the wedding, she referenced the happy couple, their deep connections to the college, and her hope that the pair would return to campus often.

They didn’t.

Instead, Carolyn Morey Edds ’90 and Teall Edds ’91 spent several years in New York—she studying for a master’s degree in special education, he working on Wall Street with Citibank and Credit Suisse First Boston. And then they hopped on a plane to Singapore with one-way tickets. It was there that Teall co-founded OCP Asia, and Carolyn worked in education in Singapore and Cambodia. They had four children, including Nathaniel Edds.

Then Nathaniel Edds went for a walk.

It was Aug. 24, 2014, and Nathaniel was carrying the banner for his first-year class at this year’s Induction Ceremony. He was chosen for that duty because he had come the farthest of all members of the incoming class, traveling more than 9,000 miles from Singapore to Granville.

And just as a story full of serendipity would have it—Nathaniel’s induction was held on his parents’ anniversary, 23 years to the day after their marriage in Swasey Chapel. Carolyn and Teall made the trip from Singapore, too, and Marilyn Dresser sat with them at the ceremony. (Bill Dresser had died in 2003).

And, of course, the couple couldn’t resist taking another walk. Past Swasey Chapel. Just for old times’ sake.

Jobs for Everyone

When the June jobs report from the U.S. Labor Department came out this year, the numbers looked good: The unemployment rate had dropped to 6.1 percent—the lowest rate since the economy started tanking in 2008—and the country had added 281,000 new jobs. The general consensus was that these were great numbers.

Fadhel Kaboub, associate professor of economics, is not part of that consensus. He believes we can do better—that we can get almost all of those 9.7 million Americans still out of work back into gainful employment.

Kaboub has been studying and writing for years about the concept of “full employment”—meaning that everyone willing and able to work is doing so. (His doctoral dissertation looked into achieving this in his native Tunisia.) The idea of full employment may seem fanciful to us now, he admits, but that wasn’t always the case. “None of this was radical during World War II,” says Kaboub, when the war effort brought work to millions. That changed in the 1980s, he says, when Western political leaders increasingly espoused a strong adherence to the whims of free markets, including the view that some unemployment is a natural way to ward off inflation. Kaboub says former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher summed up the thinking with a famous phrase: “There is no alternative.”

Kaboub disagrees. He believes that there are ways to get economies around the world to achieve full employment for their populations, and he’s started a new think tank, the Binzagr Institute for Sustainable Prosperity, to show just how to do it. Launched in October, the institute is funded by the Binzagr family in Saudi Arabia, whose business produces and distributes products regionally for consumer goods conglomerate Unilever. The institute is staffed by a board of economists and academics from across the country, including Kaboub and his former thesis advisor, Mathew Forstater, who is an economics professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC).

The goal of “sustainable prosperity” differentiates the institute from think tanks and policymakers who are focused solely on simple job creation and economic growth. Kaboub’s mission is deeper. “Economists tend to look at GDP as a key indicator,” says Kaboub. “We want to focus on quality of life, too.” A focus on GDP, for instance, might show an increase in healthcare spending as a positive, without considering that healthcare spending might be rising due to environmental issues like pollution. “A good employment opportunity provides work without necessarily destroying the environment,” says Kaboub.

And while the majority of the think tank’s output will be ideas—to generate media attention and start conversations among policymakers—the institute also will have the opportunity to see some of its theories in action. Early pilot projects in Saudi Arabia will seek to match community employment needs with community skills to create rewarding work for all involved. “Many young people looking for work in Saudi Arabia have media and digital skills,” says Kaboub. “So you’re not going to have them trim the trees and clean the streets.”

Again, he says, there are lessons to be gleaned from American economic history here: During the New Deal era, federal agencies often matched job applicants’ skills with community needs. Unemployed artists, for instance, were commissioned to paint public murals. Kaboub says the same ethos will guide the institute, which will offer research opportunities for Denison students, as well as Ph.D. students at UMKC. “We want to take the old concept of the New Deal and update it to the new economic system.” If the think tank is successful, Kaboub says, it could get government funding to implement it on a larger scale.

But putting people to work isn’t just about moving needles. Kaboub points to Argentina’s “Head of Household” program, which offered guaranteed work for a minimum of four hours a day and 150 Argentine pesos a month (roughly $18) to 2 million people beginning in 2002—in the midst of the country’s deep economic crisis. When the workers were later asked whether they’d prefer to go back on public assistance rather than participate in the work program, the vast majority, Kaboub says, preferred the program. “They were excluded from the formal economy and marginalized because they were poor and rural, but this program allowed them to participate in the economy.” It’s an enviable outcome: With a little help, the program created a new, empowered labor force—just the kind of result Kaboub hopes to create.

Why MisTakEs Matter

In our story, “Under Cover,” in the summer issue of Denison Magazine, I made a mistake. Rose Schrott ’14 wrote a wonderful piece about the Muslim Student Association’s Hijab Day at Denison, and her participation in that event as a Christian. As part of our normal editorial process, she worked with our sources on a fact-check. One source commented on our use of the word “veil” to describe the hijab, a garment that typically covers the head and neck. While the term is commonly used in Western media to describe all kinds of Muslim headdress, the source thought it best to show the wide range of head scarves and veils that Muslim women use to cover—from the hijab to the niqab (a veil for the head and face) to the burqa (which covers a woman’s entire body).

Rose adjusted the text, sent it on to me, and then I promptly let the email slip through the cracks, never subbing the new copy into the final layout. When the magazine was printed, I realized my mistake, and I then proceeded to fret about the personal embarrassment that would follow. I worried about the ways in which my mistake might reflect on Rose, a new graduate writing her first feature on a complicated issue, and on Aissata Barry ’15, president of the Muslim Student Association, who had opened up to us about her desire to spread knowledge of the reasons Muslim women cover—and, of course, the many ways in which they choose to do so.

I began to rehearse my apology in my head. I pointed out the error to my mother to relieve the guilt. While unfortunate, she said, she didn’t think it worth wasting a perfectly glorious weekend over. I showed my husband one evening after dinner, when he asked why I was so quiet. I launched into great detail about the tragically stupid—stupid—mistake. He shrugged and said, “Issue a correction in the fall,” and then took a bite of burrito.

In the midst of all this, the magazine was mailed. And my mistake was pushed out into the world, amplified 40,000 times.

Here’s what happened when it arrived in mailboxes: I received the usual calls from readers about address changes. I received emails about several stories in the magazine, including “Under Cover.” I got a few story pitches from freelance writers and alumni. But barely a word about our use of the term “veil” and our neglect to mention the various other forms of Muslim headgear. Rose, the writer, didn’t even blink.

When Adam Weinberg was first named president of Denison, I interviewed him for a story in this magazine. Over lunch one day, he lamented the fact that students are petrified to make mistakes—a real tragedy, he thought, that keeps them from trying new courses and hobbies. (I did ask him about his own life mistakes—couldn’t help myself. He’s made them, sure, but we’ll spare him the public outing.)

It turns out this fear of mistakes is universal, and it’s becoming a real problem. In a 2007 New York Times article, Alina Tugend, columnist and author of Better By Mistake: The Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong, points out: “We grow up with a mixed message: making mistakes is a necessary learning tool, but we should avoid them.” Other researchers point to the fact that fear of mistakes costs us innovation, creativity, and plenty of good ideas that might appear once the dust has settled.

In fretting over my own mistake, I managed to forget the fact that we had helped give voice to a small group on campus who could use the amplification. I forgot that in writing and editing this story, we too were pushed out of our comfort zones, exploring territory that was new to us and doing our very best to represent it well. I forgot about all I had learned through that process that makes me a more well-informed world citizen, with lessons I can pass on to my children in hopes that they will look beyond stereotypes and challenge themselves. And I forgot that the reason we did the story in the first place was to show that Denison students aren’t just sitting back and letting the world happen around them; they’re participating in it, learning from it. And if they make a mistake in that process that causes them to stop, rethink, and reassess? Well then, all the better.

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An Unexpected Connection
Thank you for another great edition of Denison Magazine. When it comes in the mail, I typically put my copy aside, waiting until I can capture more than a few minutes to read through it. When I do settle in to read, I begin at the end, scouring the news of alumni, wishing to hear even more about those with whom I shared the Denison experience. I then go to the Faculty Notes section, amazed that some names are still familiar, and I’m glad I have a glimpse into their scholarly world. Overall, I want to see how Denison is growing, and the articles and viewpoints expressed, even if not of specific interest to me, validate that the broad liberal arts platform is thriving.

This edition was placed on the coffee table awaiting a pause in the day—and sometime that afternoon, my teenage son read it. That evening, he brought to my attention the cover article, “A Day in the Hijab” (Summer 2014, p. 18). He wanted to discuss both the history of “covering” and the current Western perspectives of the practice. I was amazed at his depth of understanding and his curiosity. His thinking was well beyond my current cursory understanding. This conversation propelled me to think about the nuances of traditions and my awakening to feminism while at Denison, as well as the contradictions and the commonality of so many issues confronting women today.
More important, the connection with my son was a gift. Thank you.
Kathryn Golden Correia ’79
Saint Paul, Minn.

Hey, That’s My Shirt!
Elizabeth Gruber’s comment in the latest Denison Magazine about being excited to see a Denison bumper sticker on a car (p. 17), reminds me of the time I was in Martinique decades ago and saw a local in a Denison shirt. In my halting French, I tried to say, “That’s my university!” but probably only confused him into thinking I was accusing him of stealing “my” shirt.
Gary Goldberg ’64
Silver Spring, Md.

On Bended Knee
I wanted to drop you a note about the editor’s column, “Treading Lightly,” in the summer issue of Denison Magazine (p. 8). I read Maureen Harmon’s article with a smile on my face as I remembered that my daughter Caitlin Ghiloni ’14 wanted a picture taken of herself and her boyfriend, Matt Flickinger ’14, on the seal on graduation day in May. Though we couldn’t make it up to the seal that day, we did make it a couple of weeks later. What Cait didn’t know was that Matt—knowing how important tradition and ceremony are to her—planned to propose to her on the seal that day.

I wanted to let you know that our family will be taking one more picture on that seal, in May of 2016, when Cait and Matt will be married at Swasey Chapel.
Dee Ghiloni P’10, P’14, P’15
Academic Administrative Assistant
Department of Mathematics

Errata
In our annual Donor Report, we inadvertently omitted the full list of donors for gifts made in memory of Delta Upsilon Brothers of the Class of 1954. The 2014 donors were Ralph E. Allured, Clifford G. Lantz, Eddie D. McNew, Hugh R. Teweles, and Thomas R. Winans. All donors are members of the Class of ’54.

 

Behind Closed Doors

Ann Hagedorn’s new book features a chapter titled “What’s All the Fuss About?” in which the author acknowledges that she intends not only to inform her readers about the rise of private military contractors, but also to convince those readers to care. “People hear about this topic and they only know about Blackwater,” Hagedorn says of the firm that gained infamy during the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. “They think we got out of Iraq, and now any concerns over such companies are in the past.”

In The Invisible Soldiers: How America Outsourced Our Security, Hagedorn makes clear that the transformation in the way the nation defends itself is very much ongoing. The book delves into the fascinating—and in many ways worrisome—history of private military and security companies, or PMSCs. These corporations serve increasingly prominent roles, and not just overseas; PMSCs have made inroads into a diverse array of traditionally public responsibilities, from military logistics support to border security and local policing. Hagedorn argues that these companies aren’t inherently evil—“My biggest concern is that I don’t want people to think I’m sensationalizing this,” she says—but she cites a lack of transparency and accountability in an industry that is growing and constantly evolving, often too fast for journalists and elected officials to keep up. On the eve of her book tour, Hagedorn talked with Denison Magazine about the issue and complexities involved in this new industry.

For someone who hasn’t read your book, it may be hard to fathom how significant the issue of a privatized national defense really is. How do you get people to pay attention?

Part of the answer is that I put a human face on the components of a rather complex story—for example, I profile a special forces operative in the U.S. Army who gets shot by a U.S. private contractor. And I also introduce my readers to some of the risks involved in depending on private firms for our defense and security.

Someone asked me recently, “Why should we care?” My intellectual response is to talk about democracy, the citizen’s right to know about who defends us. But my gut reaction lately when someone asks me that is, “You wouldn’t be asking that if it weren’t an issue.”

What I mean by that is that we’re living in the midst of a plague of indifference. No one would ask that question—why does it matter, and why should we care?—if there were not indifference regarding the defense of our nation. If somebody else is willing to do it, what does it matter who that is? So for the question, “Why should we care?”—I think the person asking it provides the answer. And I think that such indifference, if you look at history, is in itself a threat to our security.

The answer, essentially, is that people should want to know, and demand to know, who’s being paid to defend their freedom. Yes, that’s right. It’s really about allegiance to one’s nation. The more the citizens of a nation are removed from the job of its defense and don’t see the consequences of engaging in armed conflict, including being told the full number of casualties for private contractors as well as traditional troops, the easier it is for policy makers to engage the nation in conflicts.  Privatization of defense allows the government to work under the radar of public scrutiny. Citizens lose a personal connection to the consequences of war.

Even within the traditional armed forces, that’s been an issue for a while—the sense that with a smaller military, very few of us have a direct connection to war and its impact. But your point is that this is different; these entities aren’t even necessarily fighting for their own countries.

There’s a reason insurgents often win—they’re passionate. We were insurgents once, in the American Revolution. The outsourcing of defense and security removes citizens from the sense of sacrifice—you are one layer removed from the connection to your nation. Another point here is that drones are a new level of depersonalized warfare and when paired with private contractors, the average citizen is two layers removed from conflict: a machine operated by an employee of a private firm defending the nation. I want readers to wake up to the fact that our country is depending on private military and security companies in a number of areas. We’ve outsourced so much, from intelligence analysis to logistics support to drone operations, diplomatic security, maritime security, border security. I think people need to know that so they can ask questions.

What kinds of questions?

Well, if U.S. contractors subcontract, which they do, where do those subcontractors come from? What experience do they have? Who trained them? How were they vetted? There has to be a way to make that transparent. Transparency is one of the biggest  issues—especially about the impact of war. When we’re told the number of casualties in the war, MIAs, whatever, we’re not told about private contractors, so we’re not seeing the full impact. In a democracy, we’re supposed to know these things, so we can have a voice about whether or not we want our government to involve us in a conflict or intervention.

The average citizen may feel overwhelmed by the complexity of the privatization issue. It’s our job as journalists to take some of the complicated stuff, some of the information that could fall through the cracks, and make it accessible to the general reader—to give them the facts to make smart decisions. My goal in writing this book is to take a topic that is very big, pull it together through studies, government reports, many interviews, and the work of journalists who’ve gone before me, into a story and trajectory that shows the evolution of an industry. Which is what we’re talking about here, really, a new industry. We need to understand it.

Where is it coming from, and where is it going?

It seems safe to assume it’s not going away. That’s what fascinates me. I’m about to leave on a book tour, and before I go on the road, I need to be updated, so I was doing some research, talking to a couple of sources. When I got off the phone, I thought, Gosh, I am never going to lose interest in this topic. I’ll go on to other books, but I’m never going to lose interest, because it’s not possible. This is a topic that shows the monumental, tectonic shifts that we are witnessing globally.

These are shifts in the structure of things—shifts on the scale of the 17th century, when we moved into the era of sovereignty and nation-states. It’s the privatization of defense and security worldwide, and it is happening worldwide—Russia, China, France, Israel, all are developing private military and security businesses. And that development reveals changes in the conduct of war, the growth of the borderless business environment, and by some accounts, the fading of the nation-state. The list is long in terms of what the evolution of this industry shows about our changing world. I just find that utterly fascinating, and as we move forward in this age of globalization, the use of these companies will only expand.

From the outside, the idea of private armies with global reach and no definitive loyalty to a national flag is a terrifying one. Is that concern shared by those on the inside, who actually understand this issue the best? I talked to people who want to literally abolish these companies and believe that’s possible. They’re very concerned about the extension of war, about an era of perpetual war provoked in part by businesses that make money from conflict, and they talk in some of the interviews about how we’re approaching a new Middle Ages—how basically the militarization of the world is going to bring us into a period like the Hundred Years’ War.

These are people who are adamant, and I think I represented them well in the book, about the dangers of this, and they have some serious, defensible, easily understood reasons. On the other hand, you have to see how such an industry can be utilized. I’ve shown both sides of the debate.

And you do acknowledge the usefulness of private armies in the book. What are the ways this trend might be a good thing?

Not all of these companies are unsavory, scandalous and just plain bad; it’s unsophisticated to look at it that way. If you look throughout history, there are instances where mercenaries help to end conflicts. They have that capability. There’s no doubt that there are good and capable companies that could be considered department stores of defense and security—that are on call in emergencies—so they can be viewed as helpful. Some of these companies provide work for veterans, and that is a very big positive. And maritime security—the shipping industry debated it for a long time, and finally allowed armed security on ships, and all the statistics show it has had a preventive effect on terrorism at sea and piracy.

So that’s true. But what’s also true is, the fact that they exist can influence policy, because they are on call, and because they are so quickly available. Would it have been possible to be involved in both Iraq and Afghanistan to such an extent without private military and security companies? With their logistics support, armed security, and other services, they fill a gap between military commitments and ambitions and the hesitations of nations to call up troops.

That seems to be the real worry—essentially, it’s in these companies’ financial interest to have a more destabilized world.

Although we gave these companies a big boost in Iraq and a bonanza of U.S. contracts helped them to become a bona fide industry, we don’t own them. In the book, I refer to them as global wild cards. They can work for any multinational or any nation anywhere in the world. And because of the business they are in and the accountability issues, there is much potential for abuse—hence the need for monitoring and for the awareness of the extent of their presence. There are indeed great potential negatives, until you get the transparency and accountability tied up. This is an industry. We need to deal with it as an industry, holding companies accountable for practices that might not align with our values.

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This seems to be connected to the broader trend of privatizing things that Americans have traditionally thought of as municipal, state, or federal responsibilities: prisons, public schools, the list goes on.

I saw one report recently that shows private security contractors in the U.S., in general, now outnumber police 2-to-1. So you’re right, it is part of a much larger trend. There was a book that came out about six years ago about all of the once-public services now privatized in this country, and one point the author made was that the most critical part of it was the privatization of defense and security. Even strong advocates of privatization ideologically are not always in favor of privatizing inherently governmental functions of defense and security.
I think one of the most revealing quotes in the book comes from Eric Westropp, a former British army officer, an industry insider, and a strong advocate of international monitoring of the industry. The quote is simply brilliant: “There’s always the seed [of mercenaries], and the Iraqi conflict watered it, big time. Now we have a new crop that will spread globally. Many years from now it may have to be stopped, but for now it will be used and must be closely monitored. Anyone taking a close look will tell you that.”

How do you acknowledge the ideological—and thus political—implications of this issue?

It’s a nonpartisan account, though anyone can use it for their own political crusade for or against the industry. I tried to be as fair as possible to the industry and recognize the fact that these are companies, and companies do what companies do. They identify markets and then find a way to make a profit. I don’t take a stand for them or against them. They may have passed through the portal of permanence or there may be a movement someday to abolish them. But for now, they must be visible and closely monitored. People need to know that they exist, that there’s more out there than Blackwater.

What was your personal takeaway from having spent so much time digging into this issue? I imagine it would be easy to be pessimistic. 

I’m a total optimist, actually. I’m also a great believer in my country and especially in the resilience of Americans—I love my country, and I love the idea and the practice of democracy, despite how immensely messy it can be.

It’s just that to keep a democracy, you have to practice it. It’s not a given. It’s not something you can take for granted. And the way you practice democracy is to be informed. Our job as journalists is to be servants to the citizens of our nation, to provide the facts and the truth so that there is discourse on the crucial issues, debate, even protest. So no, I’m not pessimistic. I don’t think about dark futures. As long as I see evidence that democracy is alive and well in this nation, then I can remain an optimist.

From an author’s perspective, how did the writing and reporting compare to your previous books?

It’s the hardest book I’ve ever written. The topic is so vast, it’s constantly changing, and even the industry itself has been a challenge to define as it embraces such a vast array of services. What were the origins, the turning points, the major players? When was the term “private military company” introduced, and who came up with it and why: to distance the business from the image of unsavory exploits of mercenaries? When did public relations and lobbying step into the private military business? All of that had to be unearthed. It wasn’t like doing a historical narrative, as I have before, where you do research in archives and read previous and established analyses. This was a moving-target topic, always evolving—that’s part of the nature of the business.  It’s ongoing, somewhat hidden, and really needs to be understood. I write with two audiences in mind: One is the general public now, of course; the other is future historians, who will hopefully use my work to better understand this incredibly complex, unnerving, and intriguing time of change we are now living through.

Ryan Jones is a senior editor at The Penn Stater magazine and the former editor of SLAM Magazine. He is the author of King James: Believe the Hype—The LeBron James Story.

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About Ann Hagedorn  
Hagedorn is an award-winning author of five narrative nonfiction books: Wild Ride, Ransom, Beyond the River, Savage Peace, and now The Invisible Soldiers.  She has been a staff writer for The Wall Street Journal, the New York Daily News, and the San Jose Mercury News. She holds an M.S. in journalism from Columbia University, an M.S. in information science from the University of Michigan, and an honorary doctorate in humane letters from Denison University, where she majored in history as an undergraduate. She has taught adjunct courses in narrative nonfiction writing at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Miami University, and Xavier University. She divides her time between New York City and a small Ohio River town that became her home during the research for her third book.

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The Invisible Soldiers: In Review

When Ann Hagedorn set out to explore private military and security companies (PMSCs), those rapidly multiplying businesses, she was seeking elusive truth. She seems not to have encountered a lot of transparency, the popular word that captures our longing for more honesty in public life. To write The Invisible Soldiers: How America Outsourced Our Security (Simon and Schuster, 2014) required considerable investigative skill and great courage.

Hagedorn’s investigative skills were already apparent in 1971, when as a student at Denison, she wrote an essay about the Harlem Renaissance after finding neglected sources in Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. She went on to work as a librarian at the University of Kansas before she turned to investigative reporting, focusing especially on corruption in the world of finance. She wrote for The Wall Street Journal in the years when it was publishing much of the best investigative writing in the U.S.

When Hagedorn left newspaper reporting to write books, she began with Wild Ride (1995), a riveting tale of the corruption and fall of Kentucky’s Calumet Farm. Then she wrote Ransom (1999), a prescient look at the international kidnapping that continues to grow in our time. Beyond the River (2004) is the story of John Rankin and the Underground Railroad in Ohio. Like Savage Peace (2007), her brilliant biography of the year 1919, The Invisible Soldiers is in part a meditation on the terrible costs of making war.

Politicians and other journalists have not ignored military privatization. When Blackwater military contractors killed 17 Iraqi civilians and injured 20 more in 2007, the attack led to five investigations and the renaming of Blackwater to “Xe Services” and then to “Academi,” which continues to be one of the most powerful and profitable of many PMSCs. But there seems to be a growing consensus that we’ve always had mercenaries, and it’s no big deal. Hagedorn provides much evidence to the contrary.

Her research for Ransom gave Hagedorn access to information about the large British influence on military privatization. And she uncovered a barely visible shift, beginning in 2012, “from the traditional military to a mix of Special Forces and private military and security companies that together would provide the backbone of national security and defense.” She explores the likely influence on foreign policy of our growing dependence on drones. The Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), for example, is a lobbying group for drones that had 7,000 members by 2011, when they were already pushing hard for self-regulation and pro-industry legislation. As Congress seeks to understand and control our increasing dependence on a privatized military, the lobbying is likely to be relentless, and unless we are very careful, profitability will figure into our deliberations about making war.

Hagedorn shows how the political influence and potential for corruption by PMSCs increase every day, and her account of this dangerous growth in The Invisible Soldiers should stir up an international debate.  —William Nichols, Emeritus Professor of English

 

 

Potato Salad For the People

Last June, Zack “Danger” Brown and some friends were passing time telling jokes. The group got on a potato salad kick, and after 15 minutes of bits on the starchy side dish, someone had a thought: Wouldn’t it be funny if someone launched a Kickstarter project just to make potato salad? Brown took the joke a step further and actually did it, promising to make potato salad with donations he received on the fundraising site. He figured he’d make a couple of bucks, have a small party with a few friends, and that would be that. A few months—and more than $55,000—later, the comedian had his hands full. We asked Brown to tell us all about Operation: Potato Salad.

The project for potato salad was really about how silly an expert on potato salad is in the context of something as serious as Kickstarter. It was more about the contrast. I feel like every popular Kickstarter project has the same sort of hope of changing the world—of being disruptive or innovative. Potato salad in the context of being a disrupter is pretty hilarious.

Before the project went live, my girlfriend and I said, “We’re going to make $60 off this.” We figured our friends would legitimately kick in about $10 each and that we’d have $60 to throw a party. Then the project went live, and by the end of the first day, we had $160. I thought that was it. I told an acquaintance, “We will not make a dollar more. This is funny, but I can’t see this going anywhere from here.” By the end of the next day, we had $1,000.

Over the first weekend, the project picked up a little more, but it wasn’t until Monday morning that it really exploded. We hit $12,000 that day, and Good Morning America called, asking if I could be in New York City the next day. That was when we all became sort of untethered from reality.

Several celebrities backed the project—Orlando Jones, Josh Malina, and Kevin Rose (of Google Ventures). I run a small software company in Columbus called Base Two, so Rose backing this was one of the most surreal moments for me.

I’m not interested in the food side of it. I’m way more interested in the entertainment side. The most rewarding part of this whole experience has been making people laugh everywhere, including places I’ve never visited. There’s a guy in Norway who, after contributing $70, sent me a message saying he, his mom, and his sister were on the floor crying, they were laughing so hard.

We plan to fulfill the promises made through the project. We printed T-shirts; we made 300 pounds of potato salad; and we threw a huge party and hosted a benefit concert at Columbus Commons. All proceeds went to a donor-advised fund at The Columbus Foundation that will give money to existing nonprofits looking to combat hunger and homelessness in central Ohio.

I’m an opportunist. I’m looking to take whatever opportunities pop up. Before this took off, I think I kind of identified as an introvert. I didn’t realize I would be good on camera or that I would enjoy it as much as I do, or that I really enjoy making people laugh. I didn’t realize it had the addictive quality that it does. It may amount to nothing, but in the now, I would regret not taking advantage of these opportunities.

I’ve had to balance my job and all of this. I had to step away from day-to-day activities, but this experience has put me more into sales and relationship-building. Surprisingly, putting “Potato Salad Guy” in the subject of an email opens some doors.

Up From Mississippi

Traveling north from her home in Jackson, Miss., Eudora Welty would have watched the progress of early spring in reverse and had time to think of her Ohio destination, of childhood visits to her grandparents in Logan, 50 miles south of Granville, where her father was raised.

The following day, April 13, 1964, was her 55th birthday, and she would spend it getting to know some of Denison’s faculty and meeting with English majors at the home of Professor Nancy Lewis on Sheppard Place. Her long bus journey to Granville was part of what a working writer learned to do to connect with a young audience, to interact with the academic world, to sell books, and from time to time, to help pay for replacing the roof on an aging house.

The English department was in the happy position of hosting Welty as the inaugural guest of Denison’s very first endowed lectureship, the Harriet Ewens Beck Chair of English, or more familiarly, the Beck Lecture Series. Gordon Beck, a 1906 alumnus, had approached Professor Paul Bennett in 1960 with the idea of honoring his wife’s lifelong love of writing, and after several years of wrangling the details, Beck’s gift was secured in a perpetual trust, the interest from which would provide honoraria for several visiting writers every year.

By the fall semester of 1963, a “List of Established Writers for Our Consideration” was drawn up by an English department committee whose members must have felt like kids in a candy shop—the list included names like Eliot, Updike, Dos Passos, Sandburg, Mailer, Hellman, Sarton, Porter, and Salinger. There’s a draft of a letter from department chair Lenthiel Downs inviting John Steinbeck to be the first Beck guest, but it was short notice for a spring residency, and Steinbeck declined.

The telephone invitation that Welty received wasn’t the first time she had heard the voice of Len Downs. A few years earlier, he had contacted her in advance of a sabbatical trip to Mississippi, where he was researching the significance of the Oxford region in the writing of William Faulkner. Downs decided to look up Welty, who lived just a couple of hours south of Faulkner country, and she agreed to meet him. They discussed her work and Faulkner’s and the importance of place in fiction, and they established a warm rapport. This friendly connection may have helped secure her agreement to accept the residency so soon before the proposed week in mid-April.

Her itinerary from Monday through Friday exposed as many listeners as possible to the author. She spoke (“Remarks on Writing”) to the faculty’s Tuesday lunch in Slayter Union, and that evening she gave her keynote address, “Words into Fiction,” in Swasey Chapel, expressing the conviction that among other things, good writing comes through reading. “When reading impresses degrees of communication on us,” she said, “we as readers know what it is to write.”

The rest of the week included visits to the bookstore in Slayter, where she signed copies of her books (Selected Stories of Eudora Welty cost $1.95). She attended a Phi Society dinner and a meeting of the Franco-Calliopean Society; she gave readings at the Sigma Chi house and at Huffman Hall, and spoke to several composition classes. There were tea parties with gatherings of women and informal visits with faculty in their homes. But the backbone of her schedule consisted of meeting with individual students who had signed up for half-hour appointments each day in Doane Library’s “Browsing Room.”

The students who met with Eudora Welty that week 50 years ago still remember her warmth, support, humility, and the unique experience of speaking directly not only with a literary celebrity but also for the first time with a Southerner. “It was the first I’d heard the lilt of a true Southerner outside of the movies,” says Peggy Schmidt ’67, a first-year student in 1964 and now a professional writer in Chicago.

“I remember the softness of her voice. … In her private meetings and in her readings, her voice was so quiet and genteel—it was hard to realize that this woman was capable of such strong and observant writing,” recalls Susan Peterson ’67, a creative writing major then, and now chair of the Communication Center in Washington, D.C.

Schmidt came away with particularly instructive observations. “I had imagined that a life in fiction-writing was a pursuit in which someone who majored in literature might earn a reasonable income. However, Ms. Welty wore what seemed to me an inexpensive cotton dress printed with flowers and a thin cardigan sweater. I began to suspect that my financial expectations were a bit overblown.”

Schmidt found the courage to blurt out a question that many young writers might want to have answered: “How can a person like me write fiction when she hasn’t been anywhere unusual or done anything worth writing about?” She remembers an encouraging response from Welty: “By your age you’ve experienced all the human emotions that exist. Take them and give them to your characters, no matter how unremarkable.” The encounter for Schmidt was significant: “I felt welcomed into the world of writing.”

The personal nature of the experience had its effect on Welty, too. She wrote to Paul Bennett a few weeks later, with gratitude for “one of the very nicest times I ever had at a college or university … I did enjoy everything.” That summer, Bennett shipped a crate of his Granville apples to Welty, and he received extravagant praise from Eudora and her mother, a West Virginian who missed the pleasures of good northern apples.

Eudora Welty was to return to Denison four more times, two of them Beck residencies. In 1967, she settled on a 12-day period in April. “I’m so pleased at the thought of coming, and it’s elegant to hear I’ll be given a car to use there. … I drive a gear-shift. Do you think there is one left in Granville? My own motor is a 1954 Ford!”

Two shorter visits followed: In May 1971, Welty was awarded an honorary doctorate of literature at Commencement, and she was back on the rostrum in October 1976, as an honored guest for the inauguration of President Bob Good.

Her final residency covered five days in the autumn of 1979, reading the Halloween-themed “Shower of Gold” on October 30 at the request of Len Downs, who was teaching a course on Welty that semester. She had never read that story to an audience before, and she confessed afterward that in reading it aloud she detected excesses in the language that she hadn’t noticed before. Welcoming tea parties of earlier years relaxed into cocktail parties, including one at Professor Dom Consolo’s house on Samson Place, where she enjoyed a little bourbon and listened to jazz recordings. Eudora was partial to Fats Waller, the inspiration for her short story, “Powerhouse,” and she hummed along to Fats while dancing a few steps with Consolo.

Kim Cromwell ’81 was taking Downs’ class on Welty that fall, and remembers the anticipation of Welty’s arrival to campus. The fragment that stays with Cromwell as most indelible is also the most fleeting, a brief moment during a casual dinner at the house of Tommy and Karolyn Burkett on Burg Street. Conversation was flying, plates were clattering, and Cromwell was 20 years old, sitting on the living room carpet at the feet of a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, looking up at her kind and familiar face. “I’m sorry I don’t remember more. I just had a moment of awareness that this was very special.”

Wishing on P-Star

The club is packed, loud and bumping, by the time Priscilla Diaz arrives well after midnight. It’s way past her bedtime, way downtown from her Harlem home. But for P-Star, the 9-year-old hip-hop sensation, this is the moment. She bounds onstage in a cotton-candy-pink faux-fur jacket, with garish gold hoops peeking out of long curly hair. She should be nervous, a little girl in a room full of adults staring at her, waiting for her to prove herself. But P-Star owns the room—and she knows it.

“I’m the Feminist Phenomenon!” she shouts into the mic. “P-Star!”

P-Star needs little introduction here. Already, she has played several gigs at New York City clubs; she’s proved herself in a DVD rap battle, against men at least twice her age; she’s been crowned Little Miss Harlem. She is, as her nickname asserts, a phenomenon. “I’m that little girl from Harlem,” she raps to the crowd. “Did I mention that I go to school?”

The audience erupts into shouts of “P-Star!” They’re still cheering when she runs off the stage and into the arms of her manager—her father, Jesse Jess Diaz, himself a former hip-hop artist. Together, they start the long subway ride uptown, to a tiny room they share with Priscilla’s sister, Solsky, in a homeless shelter in Harlem. P-Star might be a hip-hop sensation, but she isn’t living like one—at least not yet.

Priscilla Star Diaz learned to rap from the radio and TV, the main source of entertainment for two girls living in the midst of chaos. Their mother disappeared into drug addiction when Priscilla was a baby. The girls spent time in foster care while their father was in prison for two years. He then spent two more years proving to the courts that he was a fit father in order to bring the girls home to the  Bronx when Priscilla was 5. Diaz had been a rising hip-hop star and record producer back in the late ’80s, performing with a member of 2 Live Crew, and touring with Run-DMC and Ice-T. He abandoned his dream of a music career to raise his daughters. But he struggled. A car accident when Priscilla was 6 left him unable to work. Then doctors found a benign tumor in his stomach. He ballooned to 325 pounds. Sick and depressed, he barely left his room, leaving his daughters in the care of a family member, a drug addict whom Priscilla grew to love like a mother. On desperate days, she took Priscilla to the grocery store and taught her how to shoplift. “Everyone was neglected,” Priscilla says now. “We all suffered.”
But there was always music. A natural mimic, Priscilla absorbed it all—the rhythm, the moves, the delivery. She and Solsky formed their own duo, covering “No More” by the group 3LW. Solsky did the singing parts; Priscilla did the rapping, word for word, move for move. Already, she knew she had something. “I wanted to be a ‘star’ like my middle name,” she says. One night, she asked her father if she could “spit” for him. “I thought she was insulting me,” Diaz recalls.

Instead, 7-year-old Priscilla started “spitting rhymes” that she’d written herself, bouncing around the tiny kitchen, pouting and gesturing like a rapper three times her age. “When I saw her rapping, I started to see the possibility,” Diaz says. “It was amazing, that little girl doing all that herself.”

A couple of months later, after a violent scare in their apartment, Diaz packed up his daughters and left everything else behind. They moved to Harlem, to a 12′ x 12′ room in the Dawn Hotel, a homeless shelter in a neighborhood rife with drugs and gangs and violence. Their fortunes had never appeared darker. Except for one thing: Priscilla’s ambition.

“I’m going to become a star like you never could,” she told Diaz. “I’m going to get us out of here.”

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Every day after school, Priscilla went home to the shelter to start work on her other education. Diaz played her hours of classic hip-hop, like DJ Tony Tone, Cold Crush Brothers, and Afrika Bambaataa, then introduced her to the artists, old friends of his from the business. He taught her how to “flow”—to turn her rhymes into performance—and took her swimming at the local Y, so she could build up her stamina for rapping and dancing on stage. He bought her yellow legal pads so she could write down her rhymes, and brought in writer friends to edit them. But the songs were her own, rap ballads about her life and the world around her—like “Daddy’s Lil Girl” and “ABCs”—or about her dreams, like “Superstar.” Like Priscilla, the songs had the musical maturity of an adult, but the sweetness of a child. “Growing up in the Bronx and Harlem, I wanted to curse and be a little thug,” Priscilla says. “But my dad wouldn’t have it. He said, ‘You’re going to be clean. That’s what [old-school] hip-hop is.’”

One night when Priscilla was 9, she and Diaz went to the corner store for a snack after a late night of practicing. Outside, they found a group of men vamping for a camera—a Smack DVD crew filming a “rap battle” for the popular series that featured amateur rappers facing off to out-rhyme each other. Diaz pushed Priscilla into the middle of the group. “Yo, this little girl can rap,” he told the crowd. “Go ahead, P.”

Priscilla hesitated for just a moment, as she looked up at the circle of men around her—huge, skeptical, intimidating. Then she went at it. Arms gesturing in their faces, P-Star freestyled a rap, while behind her, young men threw gang signs at the camera. (“It was totally inappropriate,” Priscilla says now.) By the end, they were cheering for her. “They showed me so much love,” Priscilla recalls. “I was like, ‘Yeah! I can do this!’”

Soon after, Diaz wangled P-Star her first gig, as the “featured guest” at a hip-hop club downtown. She also entered—and won—the first of several beauty contests, the first time anyone had become Little Miss Harlem after performing a rap song for the judges. For the Diazes, still crowded into the shelter, the $500 prize money was like winning the lottery. But Priscilla cared more about the thrill of being on stage and about being with her father. “I think I saved my dad,” she says. “All of it made him happy, kept him sane, kept away the depression. If he didn’t have me, rapping, where would he be? Probably dead.”

By the time she was 10, P-Star was a regular on the club circuit. In 2004, she released her first full-length mix tape with Harlem-based HUNC records, “The Young Feminist Phenomenon.” HUNC threw her a release party in Harlem, and Priscilla performed at the Apollo. Over the next couple of years, P-Star became the youngest rapper to win the Citywide Hip Hop competition; she met—and got props from—Ludacris; she was featured on MTV’s Made and You Heard It Here First. In 2003, Priscilla had met Gabriel Noble, a filmmaker who followed her to a club and back home to Harlem—and decided on the spot to turn her life into a documentary, P-Star Rising. He spent four years recording Priscilla’s life. The movie was released in 2009. “It was so obvious that she was really talented,” says Noble. “And her drive was deeper than being rich and famous. It was about bringing the family together.” After four years in a shelter, the Diazes moved to a four-bedroom apartment a few blocks away in Harlem, where Priscilla had her own room.

In 2006, P-Star signed a deal with UBO Records that gave the Diazes a $10,000 signing bonus and a leased Chrysler 300. It was the first time music had made the family any real money. Under UBO, P-Star toured to huge crowds in Mexico and Puerto Rico, and joined Reggaeton Niños, a Spanish-language children’s group whose album went platinum.  “It was huge,” says Priscilla. “I was totally doing it, just like I promised my dad I would.”

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But stardom wasn’t so glamorous off stage. Even with her success, the Diazes struggled to make ends meet. Within weeks, the UBO bonus was gone, spent on bills and rent and splurges like outlandish gold jewelry. Diaz had been homeschooling Priscilla while they focused on her career, but learning often took a back seat to work. Most mornings were spent rehearsing or recording; late into the night, Diaz had her writing—sometimes, says Priscilla, keeping her awake until she finished a song. The hard work propelled P-Star’s career. “Sometimes I wish my dad could still make me do things, to have that discipline,” Priscilla notes. But it was a grueling and lonely pace for a young girl. Priscilla wanted to go to the movies, or the park, or to see other kids. Diaz, worried about her safety in Harlem, rarely let her out of the apartment except for work or church. For years, the only friends Priscilla made were adults—usually men—in the music business. “My dad’s a guy, and doesn’t understand girls,” Priscilla says. “The music wasn’t making me fully happy anymore because I wasn’t happy at home.”

As she got older, Priscilla started to wonder more about her mother, whom she remembered only as a pretty face and a drug addict. (Solsky, five years older, took the absence much harder.) Every once in a while, the girls urged their father to try to find her, to make sure she was alive. Together, the three of them would pile into the car, drive to Brooklyn, and try to trace her through corner drug dealers and old friends. Usually, they had to be satisfied with rumors: Their mother was in prison; she was clean; she was just here the other day. One afternoon, with Noble filming their search, they got lucky. They ran into their mother on the street near her apartment. She ran to her “babies” and lavished them with hugs. In a nearby park, she rolled up her sleeves, and showed them her arms. “I got scars here from shooting up heroin,” she said. “You know what heroin is, right?” Their mother left them with a promise to stay in touch. Then she disappeared again.

“Seeing your mother like that should inspire you, more and more, to continue to do what you do, to be successful,” Diaz told Priscilla afterwards. “That could happen to anybody.”
But Priscilla was wearying of the pace, and of the business. “It became a job, a power structure,” says Noble. “She became disenchanted, and pulled in all different directions.”

Priscilla fought with Diaz over how he was managing her and her work; Diaz fought with the producers and promoters over money and P-Star’s image. During recording sessions at UBO, the label brought in writers to pen new songs for P-Star, who by now was a 13-year-old girl with distinct ideas of her own. “I like talking about issues in my songs,” Priscilla says. “They had me singing songs like, ‘Jump.’ What are we jumping about?’” Then, just as the album was about to be released, UBO went bankrupt—and P-Star had to start all over. Again, she found herself bristling at everyone else’s ideas for her music, her career, her life. “I worked really hard to get where I was, and I felt like I deserved more than I was getting,” she says. “I wanted the chance to be me.”

Still, it wasn’t easy telling that to her father. For years, Priscilla had been daddy’s girl, following his direction, keeping him alive with their shared dream of superstardom—of making up for the music career he had lost. Even as their relationship grew increasingly tense, she couldn’t bear the thought of crushing that hope. In a scene near the end of P-Star Rising, Priscilla finally confronts Diaz. “You always look at the past,” she told him. “The past, the past, the past. You got to learn how to let it go. Stop talking about the music and what it meant back then. You got to move forward.”

After that confrontation, something shifted for Priscilla. She released Welcome To My Show in 2008, and the soundtrack for P-Star Rising a year later. With Diaz, she toured Japan and recorded a couple of songs in Japanese. Then she walked away from her hip-hop recording career, at least for a time.

But 13-year-old Priscilla wasn’t going to give up performing. A few months after she left the studio, she secured an audition with one of the most prestigious agents in New York, who handed her two commercial scripts, and asked her to do a reading. Priscilla had barely begun when the agent interrupted. “You can’t read,” she said. “How do you expect to make it in this industry if you can’t read? How do you expect to amount to anything?”

Priscilla was stunned—and humiliated. She could no longer deny what she’d known for years: She could write her own lyrics and read what she’d jotted down. But she was effectively illiterate. “That really changed my perspective,” she says. “It made me realize there has to be more than just music and entertainment in my life right now. I needed to go back to a traditional school.” Still, Priscilla went on one more audition, for the new educational program The Electric Company on PBS, where she impressed executive producer Karen Fowler with her authenticity and her comfort in working with adults. The irony wasn’t lost on her. “There I was, trying to teach kids how to read,” she says. “But there were words in the script I’d never seen before.”

Fowler realized only later the depth of Priscilla’s illiteracy. By then, she’d hired her to play Jessica Ruiz on the PBS show—a job that came with a tutor. “From then on, if I wasn’t on the set, I was in tutoring,” says Priscilla. “Even if I wasn’t shooting that day, I had to be there for tutoring. I was getting overtime because I was so behind.”

Two years later, Fowler helped Priscilla get into a high school on the Lower East Side, where she started 10th grade a year late—and got honors her first semester. Priscilla took to school the same joy she used to take to a nightclub stage. She became a cheerleader and studied abroad in Europe. She also made a best friend, for the first time in her life. “I knew [Priscilla] was smart when I first met her,” Fowler says. “When she went to school, I saw how proud she was, how delighted to be part of that community and validated as a smart person.”

Through her work on The Electric Company, Priscilla was earning a weekly paycheck. But she still was not financially secure. Because she was a minor, by law 15 percent of her salary went into a trust fund. The rest went to her father. “I needed money to go to school, to take care of myself, make sure there was food for me to eat,” she says. “But there were times when I never saw the check. The money was disappearing.” Diaz says he earned the money by acting as Priscilla’s manager, agent, and promoter—and that he spent most of it to support the family. But, unmoored by what he considered the end of another music industry dream, Diaz fell back into depression complicated by an on-and-off dependence on prescription pills. He spent weeks at a time holed up in his room, oblivious to his daughter’s entreaties. Then he snapped out of it again, with no explanation. “When he’s straight-minded and positive, he’s a great, funny man, who’s generous and knows what he’s doing,” Priscilla says. “But it didn’t last.”
Priscilla had spent most of her childhood worried about Diaz—a diabetes diagnosis, his depression, his tumor. Now she began to resent the instability that always surrounded them. Even as she thrived in school and work, Priscilla at 16 began to suffer from her own depression that, like her dad’s, lasted for weeks at a time. She felt angry and tired and lost. “I think there was always something that was too much for me, my whole life,” she says. “Worrying about my dad, about finances, about school. Every year there was some new problem.”

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In the midst of all this, Priscilla and Diaz constantly argued—over money, over Priscilla’s behavior, over old resentments. One evening, Priscilla came home to find Diaz depressed again. They started fighting, and Diaz kicked her out. “He wasn’t in a right frame of mind,” Priscilla says. “So he told me to leave—and not come back.”

That was the last time Priscilla lived with her father. Both say that change probably saved them. Priscilla moved in with Fowler in New Jersey, where she stayed until she graduated from high school. There, she had a room, a desk, a fridge full of food, and a house full of women—Fowler, her daughter, and her live-in nanny. “It was a very different environment for her,” Fowler says. “I think she needed that at that time.” For months, Priscilla barely spoke to Diaz, except to tell him she was OK. Slowly, they started to build up their relationship again. Diaz occasionally asked Priscilla to play a gig or to come to the recording studio. Despite their differences, he still held out hope that P-Star would make a comeback, even naming her next record: “The Reintroduction of Miss P-Star.”

Instead, Priscilla did something even more amazing: She decided to go to college. She heard about Denison through the Posse Program, a national organization that partners with colleges to offer full scholarships to promising students in urban areas. Though Denison brings in students from Boston and Chicago, it isn’t affiliated with Posse New York, but the admissions office wanted Priscilla anyway and found other means to offer her a full scholarship. Priscilla, a member of the Class of 2017,  arrived in Granville  last year and joined the theater program, hoping eventually to restart her music and acting careers, and to run a kids’ theater program in New York City. First however, she wants to focus on learning. “I got to college before Solsky did, before my father did, before anyone in my family,” she says. “I know I can do entertainment. What I didn’t know was that I could finish my education.”

Now 20, P-Star returns home in the summer to the same apartment in Harlem that she, her sister, and her dad moved into when she was 11. Her father decided to move to the Dominican Republic with a woman named Massiel, whom he has loved for 19 years. They got married, and Diaz started a new life. Now, Priscilla says, she appreciates him in a way she couldn’t before. “We’re super close,” she says. “After everything, he’s my father. He took on so much when he wasn’t ready for it. If he hadn’t taken me out of foster care, who knows where I’d be?” She’s also hoping to build a relationship with her mother, who got clean and reached out to her daughters when Priscilla was 16. “I’m at a point in my life where I’m finding out a lot about myself. I know the Dad part of me. I’m glad to get to know the Mom part, too.” Priscilla’s older sister Solsky is studying to become a nursing assistant.

The streets around Priscilla’s apartment are different from the way they were when she grew up there. And so is she. She’s still solitary, but she says she’s not so much lonely as focused, and that as she gets to know her adult self, she grows happier with who she is. Over the years, she has ventured back into the studio to record; this past summer, she did 20 songs, and plans to record several more over winter break. She hopes to release a new P-Star record next summer. This one will be a blending of song and rap, vastly different from her last, not only because the music is different, but also because she wants it to be different. “I know how I want my album to be, how I want to be. This time, I’m in charge.”

Roxanne Patel Shepelavy is a freelance magazine writer living in Philadelphia, Pa. Her work has appeared in Details, Self, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, Washingtonian and Philadelphia magazines.

The Only Thing We Have To Fear

Sue Davis, associate professor of political science, claims she’s pretty good at failing. She also says she’s living proof that in most cases, you won’t die from making a mistake.

Davis flunked out of college on her first attempt, failing both physics and calculus several times as a mechanical engineering major at the University of Minnesota—none of which prevented her from successfully completing a degree in political science years later, earning her Ph.D. from Emory University, writing a book about the Russian Far East, and becoming chair of her department at Denison and a well-respected scholar in her field. Nowadays, Davis shares her undergraduate travails with her students to help them understand that setbacks need not be fatal. Had she not failed as a mechanical engineering major, she may never have discovered that she would thrive as a political scientist. “As long as you own your mistakes and learn the lessons, they’re not going to keep you from doing the things you want to do,” she says.

That’s something many college students—at Denison and at schools across the nation—need desperately to hear. For just as anxiety disorders are on the rise among the general population, so too have fear of failure and aversion to risk become increasingly common, especially among Americans.

It’s an odd situation, given the overt glorification of risk in American society at large. Several recent books, including Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein—Colossal Mistakes that Changed our Understanding of Life and the Universe, by astrophysicist Mario Livio, and The Upside of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success, by journalist Megan McArdle, paint defeat as the engine of progress. So do many entrepreneurs, most notably those in Silicon Valley, a place where failure is a badge of honor, and lack of the same indicates that you aren’t taking enough risks. It’s an attitude supported by the work of Gregory Berns, a neuroscientist at Emory University who argues that fear of failure is one of the greatest impediments to innovative thinking (see Iconoclast: A Neuroscientist Reveals How to Think Differently), and by any number of management gurus. As Stanley M. Gully, associate professor of human resource management at Rutgers University, once told a reporter for The New York Times: “In most personal and business contexts, if you avoid the error, you avoid the learning process.” Failure, we are told, isn’t just something to be weathered; it is a catalyst for greater understanding, and a prerequisite for success.

Yet for all that, many Denison faculty and staff believe that fear of failure is actually on the rise among students. And that is a serious problem, insofar as a liberal arts education aims to cultivate new ways of thinking, to challenge preconceived notions, and to spur intellectual and personal growth—all of which entail taking risks of various kinds, and all of which involve, if not demand, repeated failure.

There are many reasons for this mounting level of anxiety in the face of anticipated failure, from parental hovering to the college admissions process. And given its deep and tangled roots, it is unlikely to disappear anytime soon. But those same faculty and staff who lament the fear of failure also are actively engaged in helping students overcome it.

The growing timidity of students derives in part from an increasingly competitive college admissions process, and from what Davis and Denison President Adam Weinberg both describe as a commonly held myth: that without perfect high school grades and the perfect extracurricular profile, you will never get into the college of your choice. That myth, which is reinforced by well-meaning parents and teachers from middle school onward, is only exacerbated by a precollegiate emphasis on high-stakes testing that inevitably focuses the mind on nailing the correct answer on the first try. And it provides a powerful incentive to play it safe.

Rising levels of performance anxiety among new arrivals on college campuses may also be related to broad social trends such as “helicopter parenting” and the self-esteem movement. The argument goes like this: Take a society in which success is defined by winning; add excessive parental hand-holding right through early adulthood; stir in the sneaking suspicion that children must be praised at every turn and spared the trauma of failure at all costs; and you wind up with a generation of students whose self-esteem is tied to their performance, yet who lack the coping skills required to overcome the shocks that life will inevitably deliver. Or as Associate Professor of Biology Thomas Schultz puts it: “Our kids are set up both to have all this pressure to do well, and to have this safety net when they don’t.”

There is good evidence to support much of this, and good evidence to suggest antidotes, as well—antidotes that many in the Denison community already are supplying.

Much of what we know about how people respond to setbacks comes from the work of Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck. Over the course of several decades, Dweck has refined a theory that posits two very different ways of thinking about ability: a fixed mindset, which is characterized by the belief that one’s abilities are static and innate; and a growth mindset, which is characterized by the belief that one’s abilities are malleable and subject to improvement through effort. People who hold a fixed mindset tend to view failure as a threat to their self-image. They are concerned primarily with outcomes and performance, and they are more likely to give up when faced with setbacks rather than persevering in search of new and better strategies for success. They also tend to stick to what they already do well, abjuring challenges that might make them look bad in the short term, but that could help them flourish over the long haul. People with a growth mindset, on the other hand, tend to be more resilient: they regard mistakes as learning opportunities. They are concerned primarily with the process of figuring out how to solve problems, and they are motivated, rather than cowed, by failure.
Dweck carried out most of her early research with young children; one of her best-known studies, for example, found that elementary school students who were praised for their intelligence rather than for their effort were more likely to give up when they encountered setbacks—a result she attributed to the fact that praising a child for being smart rather than for trying hard encourages the development of a fixed mindset. (The opposite also appeared to be true.) Dweck and others also have performed studies suggesting that a growth mindset can be helpful to college students. And they have demonstrated that such a mindset can be cultivated through interventions that encourage students to think of their abilities as flexible and amenable to improvement. Denison faculty members don’t take seminars on Dweck’s theories, but it’s striking how much of what they do seems designed to help their students develop a growth mindset nonetheless.

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Many faculty talk about the students who come to their classes wanting to know exactly what they need to do in order to get an A, and about their own attempts to get students to focus instead on developing broadly applicable skills that will help them tackle a wide array of problems (e.g., reasoning by analogy, and formulating and testing hypotheses). Davis, for example, immediately begins to chip away at the very notion that there is a single solution to most problems. In her class on Russian politics, for instance, she asks students to write a paper describing those junctures in the country’s history that are most important to understanding it today, and she then has them compare their results so that they can see how others were able to do well even though they made entirely different choices.

Over in the biology department, Schultz drills into his students the idea that science is not so much a body of knowledge as a way of thinking—one in which all understanding is provisional, any theory is only as good as your last experiment, and failure is what leads to discovery. He does that in part by relentlessly forcing students to focus on the scientific thought process itself, rather than on its endpoint. If an experiment fails to produce the expected result, for example, Schultz immediately turns the students’ attention to understanding why, and to the insights that can be gained from an unanticipated outcome. “Initially in science, it’s a lack of understanding something that prompts new ideas and new exploration,” he says. He also often asks students to come up with questions for an impending exam, and then has them pose those questions to the entire class and grade one another’s responses, providing a rationale for their evaluations. Over time, Schultz says, that kind of process-oriented exercise helps students shift from concentrating on what they know to how they think. It also makes them more comfortable with uncertainty, and enables them to take risks that they would previously have avoided.

Like Schultz, Dance Professor Gill Wright Miller ’71 constantly prods students to focus on the learning process rather than on outcomes. In her somatics classes, for example, students are introduced to a series of basic movement patterns, then asked to use those patterns to figure out how to perform a physical feat they couldn’t previously manage, such as exceeding a personal weightlifting record or diving headfirst into a swimming pool. It isn’t unusual for students to fail at their self-appointed tasks within the narrow time horizon of a single semester—Miller even strings together a blooper reel of their most spectacular failures, including collapsing handstands and high-speed balance-ball wipeouts, all set to the Kelly Clarkson song, “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You).” But Miller gives full credit to those who can describe what they were trying to do, how they were trying to do it, and why they failed, along with a strategy for succeeding, given sufficient time. It’s an approach that’s so systematic, one might even call it scientific. “For the past 30 years, I’ve said that the arts and sciences approach things in similar ways,” she says. “There’s a lot of trial and error, and there’s a lot of respect for the error.”

The kind of resilience that Davis, Schultz, and Miller all strive to encourage can be learned outside the classroom, as well. One of the principal tenets undergirding the Denison experience is that curricular and cocurricular activities complement and support each other, enabling students to develop skills that can be transferred from one domain to another. And one of those skills, says Weinberg, is perseverance itself, a skill that can be acquired through the myriad cocurricular pursuits in which so many Denisonians are engaged. Sports, for instance, provide famously fertile ground for learning to cope with defeat—in part because, as Associate Professor of Athletics Brian Hortz ’94 points out, “you can fail over and over,” and in part because you can do so in ways that are so painfully obvious.

Head swimming coach Gregg Parini typically sees three reactions among student athletes for whom failure is a particularly terrifying prospect: catatonia, or freezing up like a deer in the headlights; redlining, or getting worked up to the point where hyperventilation and a racing heart degrade one’s physical performance; and false bravado, in which one takes spectacular risks that basically guarantee a disastrous outcome. Unpacking those responses is more a psychological exercise than a physiological one: Coaches must dig deep in order to determine why students are freaking out, then help them understand how they are undermining their own success. But there are specific tools, such as relaxation and visualization techniques, that training staff can teach students to help them calm themselves and conquer their anxieties. And in its emphasis on drills and practice, says Hortz, athletic training naturally offers students the opportunity to achieve mastery in small steps, building confidence in their ability to succeed regardless of their fears.

Persuading people to step outside their comfort zones can be slow going, however, especially when you’re dealing with deeply entrenched attitudes that are shared by an entire team. Years of second-place status, for example, meant that it took Parini nearly 14 years to shift the mentality of the women’s swim team to the point that the swimmers were able to capture a national championship. It took nearly 24 years for the men’s team to do the same. “It’s exciting to see,” Parini says. “But sometimes it works in geologic time.” And it might not work at all, says Associate Professor of Philosophy Mark Moller, without a good deal of spadework on other fronts.

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As dean of first-year students, Moller sees a lot of nervous young people filing onto campus each year. And he has come to believe that before students can take the kinds of risks that faculty and administrators want them to venture—before they can move beyond their own perceived limitations, explore unfamiliar subjects, and open themselves up to the diversity of thought and experience on the Hill—they must first get past the overwhelming pressure they feel to fit in socially. Consequently, the principal goal of the college’s various orientation and pre-orientation programs is to alleviate that pressure by helping students build relationships throughout the Denison community.

The process begins with June Orientation (aka June-O), an optional program in the early summer that gives incoming first-year students the opportunity to work with upperclass students and faculty to familiarize themselves with academic programs and to register for classes. The experience ensures that they will know at least a handful of people when they return in the fall. And the process continues with a series of pre-orientations (so called because they take place prior to the mandatory August orientation session, or Aug-O) that encourage participants to bond with one another by engaging in various activities under the direction of Denison faculty, staff, and student leaders: biking to Mohican State Park in Ashland County, hiking in the Daniel Boone National Forest in Kentucky, or volunteering in various service organizations in Washington, D.C.

Mentoring also plays a vital role. Some of that rests on the shoulders of faculty, who are encouraged to practice what Moller calls “intentional advising,” a form of mindful counseling that involves setting aside extra time for first-year students who may be struggling to make the transition to college life. And some of it takes place through what Weinberg calls “student-student modeling,” which occurs when first-year students get to know upperclass students through cocurricular activities and are able to see how their peers developed new skills (playing the violin, doing improvisational comedy) through effort and hard work. The extent to which such relationships can help students overcome their anxieties is by no means trivial, and jibes well with the findings of Hamilton College sociologist Daniel F. Chambliss. In his recent book, How College Works, Chambliss explores the factors that contributed most strongly to the academic success and overall college experience of a large cohort of Hamilton students and alumni: namely, the connections they established with their professors and with each other. Even one or two positive ties were found to yield measurable results.

At the end of the day, however, creating an environment in which undergraduates can build positive relationships is only part of the battle that Denison faculty and staff must wage in order to help students conquer their fears and fulfill their potential. And given both human nature and the forces at play in American society, it’s a battle that won’t be over anytime soon.

“When I got here, I was amazed at how well we were doing on this issue, and how committed people were to it,” says Weinberg. “But I also saw that the problem was getting worse every year. So we’re going to be continually challenged to up our game.”

Alexander Gelfand is a writer based in New York. His work has appeared in The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, and The Economist.

Humans of Denison

In the summer of 2010, photographer Brandon Stanton began to take photos of people on the streets of New York and later started to capture their stories through a project he called “Humans of New York.” According to his popular blog, HONY now has more than 4 million followers on social media, and the images have been pulled together into a New York Times bestselling book. But HONY also has sparked a Humans movement, with “Humans of …” spinoffs popping up on Facebook and highlighting the people and personalities of places throughout the world, from Pittsburgh to Paris to Pakistan. • A group of Denison students—Jihyun Kim ’16 of the Republic of South Korea, Asesha Dayal ’17 of Mumbai, India, and Ridhim Seth ’17 of Kolkata, India—joined the international movement and created their own “Humans of Denison” Facebook page—one that they continually update to show that everyone has a story to tell. • Here are just a few of the people they’ve met along the way.

Field of Dreams

Chapin Speidel ’14 and his Denison lacrosse classmates came into their senior season with a three-year record of 39-9.They were talented and experienced and used to winning, and they expected to win plenty in 2014. But this? This, Spiedel says, was something different. “There was a focus on this team,” he says, “something that I hadn’t really seen before.”

Great teams in any sport tend to boast that blend of tangible and intangible strengths, and it was just that sort of mix—depth and talent, leadership and focus—that carried the Big Red to historic success this spring. Denison opened the season with 19 consecutive wins before seeing its record setting season end with its first, and only, loss in the quarterfinals of the NCAA tournament. For longtime coach Mike Caravana and his squad, it was a sudden and disappointing end that did little to dampen the joy of a phenomenal run.

“I’ve been doing this for a while, and I can tell you, this group of seniors and juniors set a very high standard,” says Caravana, who saw his team set program records for goals (320), assists (189), and total points (509). “I think it mostly has to do with personnel. Our level of practice every day was really high, and it’s easier to go practice when your best players not only play well, but influence everyone else to play well.”

Even in that 19-0 start, some wins meant more than others. For Caravana, back-to-back early season road trips to Washington & Lee and Roanoke gave Denison a chance to test itself against top-15 opponents just four days apart. The latter, a 12-4 win, had a lasting impact. “We dominated a very good team on their own turf,” Speidel says. “After that game, we knew we could hang with the best.”

A 19-17 win over Stevens looks less impressive on paper, but it was how the Big Red won that mattered: Trailing 17-16 late in the game, Denison rallied for three goals in the final two minutes to seal a memorable comeback. Senior Eddie Vita ’14, who finished the season with a team-high 74 points, scored the game-tying and -winning goals; sophomore Eric Baumgardner ’16, who won countless key face-offs while filling in for injured senior standout Chip Phillips ’14, was emblematic of the younger players who played vital roles on a veteran-laden team.

Then, in April, just 11 days apart, came a pair of wins over Ohio Wesleyan. In the first, it was another sophomore, James Meager ’16, whose fourth-quarter tally capped a come-frombehind 10-9 victory over the Bishops. Less than two weeks later, the rivals met again in the NCAC championship game, and it wasn’t close. Denison clinched the conference crown and bragging rights with a 14-5 victory, sealing a season double that Caravana calls “a monumental achievement.”

“I’ll miss those games, man,” Speidel says of the heated battles with OWU. “The first one, I think we overthought a little bit. The second game was more of what we were all about.”

Denison entered NCAA play at 17-0, and the winning streak reached 19 after tournament victories over Centre and Aurora. It was Salisbury, ranked No. 2 in the nation, that finally figured out the Big Red. The Seagulls, eventual NCAA runners-up, jumped out to a 7-1 halftime lead over Denison in their NCAA quarterfinal meeting and held on for a 15-5 win.

Despite falling short of the national title, Denison claimed a slew of season-ending accolades: Speidel, Vita, and Baumgardner earned spots on the U.S. Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association All-America teams, as did senior Austin Campbell ’16 and junior Drew Newman ’15. Freshman Luke Walsh ’17 earned NCAC Newcomer of the Year honors, setting a Denison rookie scoring record with a team-high 51 goals. And Caravana, in his 21st season, was named Lacrosse Magazine’s Division III Coach of the Year.

From the Archives

The Denison Band played an al fresco overture, a prayer was offered, the Glee Club sang, and according to the May 1936 program, Reverend Millard Brelsford “placed the box.” After this, Ambrose Swasey, who had dedicated his share of Denison cornerstones in the previous two decades (Swasey Observatory in 1909, Swasey Chapel in 1924), ceremoniously installed yet another. The tightly sealed handmade copper box fit neatly into a cavity behind the stone proclaiming the founding year of the new (yet to be built) William Howard Doane Library.

Those present at the library dedication might have imagined centuries before their time capsule would be discovered, but they didn’t anticipate the 1998 restoration of the library steps, or ADA regulations requiring a handicap-access ramp. The new ramp obscured the old cornerstone, so after 62 years it was chiseled out and raised about six feet above its original position. A mason found and brought the dark copper box to the attention of librarian Mary Prophet, who mused about what interesting things might have been included in a 1936 time capsule. It wasn’t a request, but the mason took it as permission, and he pried the box open like a large can of sardines.

Seven local newspapers filled much of the space, the Denisonian and a bright pink edition of the Columbus Citizen among them. Every print publication about the college and town that could be found was carefully stacked together, including “A Declaration of Principles and Character” and a statement on faculty tenure policy. There was a neatly typed budget from the Finance Committee and an outline of the “Denison Destiny” five-year, $5 million capital campaign. There were five loose American coins minted in 1935, and photographic portraits of the librarian, Annie Louise Craigie, and President Avery Shaw. Nothing earth-shattering, but an earnest offering-up of who we were and what we were trying to achieve in that moment, as a gesture to the unknown future.