Siblings, Descendants Strive for Individuality
February 14, 2013
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A name often comes with a meaning devoid of relevance to its owner. These titles––more specifically last names––are passed to family members and carry with them any meaning that other relatives have given them. Whitman has its own collection of significant, recognizable names.
Ethan Bergeson, a current senior, overlapped with his older brother Seth when he entered Whitman in his first year. Bergeson got a lot of older-brother references when he came here because of his shared last name, and there are plenty of reasons why people would know of Seth. He was an RA, on ASWC, the senior student speaker and the recipient of the prestigious Watson Fellowship and Fulbright Scholarship.
“Senior year people started hearing about him because he got a Watson,” said Bergeson. “He was really big on the grants department.”
Bergeson used his Watson grant to travel and study the games children play in different areas of the world, specifically countries that had experienced either civil wars or genocide.
Needless to say, in Bergeson’s first year, most people knew who he was, he said. Students, faculty and administration alike knew of his brother, and “mostly his teachers” will mention it.
With a notable last name comes preconceived ideas and expectations.
“When I came here as a freshman, people who were friends with him expected me to be like him,” he said.
Bergeson knew this would be a factor in attending the same college as his older brother. He experienced essentially the same comparisons in high school.
“It was pretty much the exact same thing,” he said. “[But] in high school, we were much more similar than we were in college.”
While contemplating which college to attend, he was hesitant. All the same, he couldn’t avoid the fact that Whitman was his number one choice.
“[I] didn’t want to come here for a while, just because [Seth] did,” he said. “Even though I consider the two of us pretty different in a lot of ways, we are actually incredibly similar, so I think both of us really liked certain aspects of Whitman.”
But with time, the younger Bergeson made it known he was his own person. He initially saw a lot of preconceptions about his own personality and choices in coming here, but these have faded.
“[I don’t see it] as much anymore. And he and I have taken two completely different paths within college,” he said.
And of course, having a well-known older brother at hand in entering college has its benefits.
“It was a nice way to ease into the college transition,” said Bergeson. “But, that also has some negative aspects, too, having your brother here.”
Max Skotheim, grandson to Whitman’s old president Robert Skotheim, echoed Bergeson’s emphasis on creating an identity apart from a name.
“My grandfather is one of the most admirable people I know,” Skotheim explained in an email, “but I’d like to think that people’s perception of me is based on my actions rather than his.”
Robert Skotheim, president of Whitman from 1975 to 1988, accomplished a lot for the college. “By the end of his tenure, in 1988,” Whitman’s website says, “the college’s endowment had nearly quadrupled and Whitman was recognized as one of the best liberal arts colleges in the Northwest.” Skotheim was integral to getting Whitman to where it is today, and anyone aware of Whitman’s recent history would recognize the Skotheim name.
Consequently, Skotheim doesn’t see his grandfather’s past having a big effect on his life.
“I wouldn’t say that my last name affects my day-to-day life that much,” he said.
Because of the nature of his grandfather’s legacy, Skotheim sees any, if at all, recognition of his last name far more in faculty than in students, like Bergeson did.
“When it does come up it is usually with faculty rather than students, because they actually knew him,” said Skotheim.
But in general, Skotheim doesn’t experience much of a to-do about his last name.
“Most people don’t know about my grandfather’s career here so it doesn’t come up a lot,” he said.
Regardless, Skotheim and Bergeson alike feel the lingering effects of their passed-on names. Students and faculty of Whitman recognize the importance of identities like these around campus, no matter how distant these people actually are from the meanings of their namesakes.