Looking Forward, Reaching Back

By Elizabeth Randolph

As Vassar students move though college, they are often supported by the generosity of those who have gone before them. Even after graduation, Vassarites find that they have never really left the fold.


The line stretches back to Matthew Vassar’s day and extends forward for years to come. It started with a single gift from our founder and has since persistently reminded us that “No student of superior promise should be turned away due to lack of means.” Scholarships have been an essential element of Vassar’s commitment to this guiding principal, which has benefited countless students, their families, the college, and society as a whole. This academic year, nearly 60 percent of all Vassar students will receive financial aid from the college.

Meet three people who help make up this powerful line: Sylvia Allen Nelson ’53, William McVail ’87, and Louise Conner ’11.

Blodgett Hall
Blodgett Hall
A self-described “faculty brat” whose father taught at Dartmouth, Nelson acknowledges that she did not fully appreciate her financial aid at the time she was receiving it. Years later, she says, she realized Vassar “pushed me beyond my comfort zone, stretching me in unexpected ways, sometimes despite myself. It wasn’t until years later that I realized how extraordinary it all was. It has loomed large in my life since those early days.” Nelson always wanted to pay back the money that made her education possible, and in 1981, with the support of her husband, she was able to do so. By establishing the Sylvia and Harry Nelson Scholarship Fund, and three years later the Gretchen Hawkins Nelson and Sylvia Allen Nelson Scholarship Fund, named in memory of her mother-in-law, she has helped make a Vassar education possible for more than 50 students.

One of those students was Bill McVail ’87, now a senior portfolio manager at an investment firm near Philadelphia. After working odd jobs for several years following high school and “going nowhere,” McVail consulted with a former guidance counselor who suggested that he apply to Vassar. “It radically changed my life,” says McVail. “I’m proud of the hard work I did at Vassar, and of what I’ve achieved since.”

He recalls writing a letter of thanks to then-admissions director James Montoya, saying, “I will do my best to reward the college’s faith in me. If I become successful enough to repay the college for this opportunity, I certainly will.”By creating the William McVail Endowed Scholarship Fund nearly a decade ago, he has helped open the same doors for future applicants. “Without the generosity of others, I wouldn’t be sitting where I am today,” he states. “I felt I had to do what I could, and I feel great about it.”

Last fall, McVail received a letter from Louise Conner ’11, a recipient of his scholarship, who expressed her own gratitude. “If there is any doubt in your mind that your contribution is making a difference, let this letter erase it,” she wrote. Although most of her high school classmates went on to community colleges or state schools, Conner set her sights on Vassar and was accepted by early decision. Bill McVail’s scholarship is helping her to make the most of that opportunity. An economics major planning to add a correlate in international politics, Conner has her eye on graduate school and a career in international trade. One day she hopes to be among the professionals to reshape international organizations such as the World Trade Organization and the World Bank. For now, she practices her leadership skills as president of Davison House and has happily immersed herself in college life. “I can’t see myself anywhere else but here,” she says, “It feels very much like home.”

—Andrea Durbin


During last year’s Spring Convocation, speaker Bronwen Pardes ’95 told graduating seniors how lucky they were that, though they were leaving campus, they were entering a community of Vassar alums that cares deeply for its members. As an illustration, she related a story about the whirl wind backpack tour of Europe she and a classmate took after graduation. According to Pardes, “We were armed with six pairs of underwear between us and the names and phone numbers of alumnae and alumni who lived in the countries we planned to visit.”

The list served them well. On their third night in Europe, they stayed in a small German town called Weinheim, in the home of an alumna from the class of 1990. “Without knowing a thing about us other than where we went to college, she agreed to let us stay with her,” recalls Pardes.

Blodgett Hall
Blodgett Hall

Later, in Italy, after being robbed, they called an alumna from the class of 1976 living in France, who allowed them to have their new American Express cards delivered to her Paris apartment. “We made it home from Europe and life went on, but the generosity of my fellow alums never stopped,” Pardes says, noting that alums have helped her in a variety of other ways since then—from welcoming her to a new town by inviting her to dinner to helping her promote her book.

Countless other graduates have benefitted from Vassarites’ helping hands, and so have students. Alumnae/i frequently participate in programs, organized by the Alumnae and Alumni of Vassar College and the Career Development Office, designed to give students a taste of real life in their chosen fields. One example is the Wall Street Immersion program, which consists of a three-day trip to Manhattan, where about 20 students visit top financial firms, meet alumnae/i who work there, and network their way into possible summer internships. That was the case with Arjun Agarwala ’10, who participated in the program his freshman, sophomore, and junior years. His networking paid off—he landed an internship at Citigroup last summer and a job offer there a year before graduating.

Madeleine Boesche ’13 immersed herself in a different way at the Medical Day panel, held during Vassar’s 2009 Freshmen Parents’ Weekend. During the event, four alumnae/i working in diverse aspects of medicine discussed their careers. Boesche, a freshman, found the Medical Day panel valuable in terms of planning her Vassar education. “I’m not a science major,” she says, “so it was comforting to hear the doctors talk about how important it is to major in some thing different.” She also walked away with contact information for those on the panel and intends to reach out to them in the future as she plans her career.

As Pardes said at Convocation, now that a few years have gone by, the tables have turned —today, recent graduates are calling her for advice, and she’s happy to help. “We’re here for you,” she told the class of ’09, “and we like you without having met you.We can make the big scary world feel a little smaller and a little more manageable.”

—Elizabeth Randolph

Photo Credit: Russell Monk

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