Unnameable: An Exploration of Student & Institutional Identity at Sarah Lawrence College

Background, History & Introduction

My own journey through Sarah Lawrence has been a process of self-discovery, as cliché as it seems, and looking at the younger classes I find myself wondering where each of you are in your own lives. Who are you and who are you becoming?

This brings a larger question to mind: What does it mean to be a Sarah Lawrence student? Is there some identity we all adhere to during our time here? If so, can we name the qualities of that – can we even name the qualities that make Sarah Lawrence, Sarah Lawrence? These questions are complicated and seem to have no clear answer, but I still want to seek one out.

This year, we have all made, or at least heard, the complaints about the “mainstreaming” of the school, and there has been a great deal of anxiety about the recent move to SAT-Optional and the NCAA Division III. Everyone seems to be wondering about the future of our institution and as I find myself quickly approaching alum status I wonder what this school will look like at my tenth, twentieth and thirtieth reunion. To that end, and spurred on by the concerns of my peers, I set out to try and answer these questions I wasn’t sure I’d fully formed.

I started by sending out thirty-eight emails to various members of the administration, faculty and student body asking them if they’d like to have conversation about the Sarah Lawrence identity; what it means to be a Sarah Lawrence student and what the identity of the institution itself is. I received seventeen responses, some with emailed thoughts and others who were excited to meet in person. The following is an exploration of the conversations I had with these people in my attempt to answer these vague questions of identity and change. While I don’t expect there to be singular, concrete answers I do hope that this inspires further conversation.

My meeting with Abby Lester, the College Archivist, provided some context for this exploration. In the 1930s, as an all-female institution, Sarah Lawrence was regarded as innovative and both students and the public viewed the school as “an experiment.” The students exhibited a great deal of pride and ownership over the institution, and spent a great deal of time attempting to build a community, though most of the efforts didn’t stick. The process of discovering themselves, as an institution and a student body, took about 10 years, though I would argue that this is an ongoing project.

During the 1940s Sarah Lawrence, along with the rest of the world, was characterized by World War II. The curriculum changed in response to this and there was an increased focus on science in wartime. The aftermath of World War II brought the G.I. Bill and a co-educational “trial period” that continued to change the curriculum and identity of the school. This period of time also brought about more concerted efforts to build community that again mostly failed to take hold.

The 1950s brought the McCarthy era and a brief label as a “commie school.” During this period SLC really began to define itself as progressive, and it may have been at this point that we saw the entrance of a more radical student body, though the faculty had always been “left-leaning.” Towards the end of the 50s, and throughout the early 60s, Sarah Lawrence struggled to figure out how liberal or conservative it was.

During the late 1960s there was a conflict between students who wanted to retain the status quo and those who didn’t. The largest sit-in in 1969, started in protest over an increase in tuition, drew 100 students over the course of 10 days. Though enrollment was lower at this point in time, the 100 did not represent a large portion of the student body. This sit-in sparked conversation about SLC as an “elite institution” and laid the groundwork for discussions of race and diversity on campus. This period of time began to define the school as radical, even though participation in such protests wasn’t large.

The 1970s brought a financial crisis and recruitment trouble. Alice Bovard had been the Director of Admission from 1939 until 1970 and during her time, she interviewed every single person who applied for admission to the college. After her departure, we went through several Admissions Directors and found the media to be very focused on our new co-ed status. However, the school’s own response to the introduction of men was rather non-committal, and in a letter, Esther Raushenbush expressed a desire for the press to pay attention to more interesting things, like the academics. This era also saw a reorganization of administrators and faculty and a recovery from the 60s.

The 1980s saw a loss of much of the activist mindset of the previous years, though the sit-in of 1989 is one of the most talked about cases of on-campus activism in that history of the college. Though this sit-in was also not attended by a large portion of the campus, it had very concrete results. The campus climate reflected society as a whole – engaging with questions of diversity and wondering “where does everyone fit in?” The curriculum was in danger of becoming “old school” and the progressive nature of the school needed to be revived.

Though this is a brief and incomplete history, to me it illuminated a sense constant evolution that seems to define Sarah Lawrence throughout various eras. However, this begs the question – is there something at the core of this institution? Within the core of individual students? Or is SLC constantly evolving and changing, and what does this mean for future classes?


Student and Alumnae/i Opinions on Students, The College and the Future

We’ve always heard that we SLC students are independent, creative, artistic and passionate. Yet the students who responded to my questions added much more to the list: we aren’t afraid to ask questions, we hold an activist spirit, we are geeks and weirdos, we were popular in high school, we seek diversity. Yet, despite these adjectives, no one could quite pin down what it meant to be a Sarah Lawrence student. Cody Gray ’13 wrote that “the SLC identity is probably one of the hardest things to find. It requires a lot of digging and often times, asking a lot of uncomfortable questions.” This process of discovery and growth seems to be the hallmark of the Sarah Lawrence student and Shirin Johnson ’14 added that most SLC students want change, both in their own lives and with regards to larger social and cultural issues. As students, we “are always looking for ways to improve upon the world around [us] and are very rarely satisfied with the status quo,” she says. Alexis Gordon BA ‘10/ MS Ed ’11 adds that “inherently, a Sarah Lawrence student wants to learn.” The centrality of learning, both about ourselves and the world around us, coupled with the desire to enact change of some sort are two of the threads that bind us together as Sarah Lawrence students. There is an innovation to our approach to both academics and life, and an inclusiveness of other ideas that continues after graduation. To Ari Jones ’14, the Sarah Lawrence identity “centers around diversity and freedom.” Here, she says, she’s found a place where she can be as free in her academic pursuits as she is in her non-academic activities.

Some “non-academic” activities have been the source of recent anxiety among the student body and they’re fearfully wondering if the school they love so much is changing. However, what exactly do SLC students understand their school to be? Jones says that it is an environment that nurtures eccentric passions; Johnson reports that it is a place that is constantly trying to better itself and Gray says it “represents uninhibited academic freedom.” Like the attempt to pin down the student identity, the attempt to understand the identity of the institution struggles with a lack of vocabulary. Gordon, reflecting back on her time, remembers how important the academics were and says that “Conference Week is what all of us alumni are pining for years after graduation.”  

So the question remains: is Sarah Lawrence changing? The responses were mixed: Gray believes that while Sarah Lawrence is changing, the core identity is not. Johnson says that her greatest fear would be for SLC to become “static and content with who it is.” However, Johnson also believes that no aspect of the SLC student is in danger of disappearing. Jones believes that the fears of normalizing the campus are unfounded and that, while we may add programs that feel more mainstream, we will definitely approach each of them in our “own SLC way.” She urges that we must be accepting of new interests as they emerge and that different ideas of fun don’t mean certain people or programs don’t belong here. An athlete for all four years, Gordon admits to not being active in high school and initially joining crew to make friends. She writes that the move to Division III “won’t change much about SLC,” but will allow us to affirm the efforts of our student athletes. While this move will also help us recruit students who love athletics, Gordon believes that the people who stay around for all four years are the ones who respect and understand the pedagogical model of SLC. Jones believes that Sarah Lawrence should “continue to strive for diversity. Not just in terms of race or class or ability, which are extremely important, but in terms of interests and activities.” Gordon says that every SLC student she met was a real “Renaissance (wo)man” who not only had their specific subjects but always had a true interest in the work of others as well and that that is in no danger of changing. Gray acknowledges the  fear that students have when changes seem to come from the administration, without student input, but reminds us that “Sarah Lawrence is the student body” and that we have “revolutionary potential.”


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Featured Image: Sarah Lawrence Girls

Zac Hewitt was born in Gray, Maine and grew up around New England. His primary interest is in folklore and you should definitely talk to him about mythological women. He has worked in Admissions for three years and been involved in Student Affairs since his first year. After graduation he really wants to head into the wild.

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