Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 10
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Alumni drawn towards employment at alma mater

“I had drunk the Whitman Kool-Aid,” said Assistant Professor of Astronomy Nathaniel Paust ’98. Kool-Aid or no, an almost magnetic attraction seemingly compels alumni to return to Whitman College as faculty or staff members.

At Whitman, meeting students who are the second or third child from their family to go to Whitman, or even the second generation, is common.

Senior Lecturer of Chemistry Deberah Simon ’72 exemplifies this Whitman family effect. Not only did her husband, son and daughter-in-law all attend Whitman, but her son also teaches here now as an adjunct instructor of music.

“He graduated exactly 30 years after my husband and I did,” said Simon. “It’s very exciting to see his name on the faculty roster.”

Each alumnus’s life followed a different path after graduation, but somehow all roads eventually led back to Whitman. Simon graduated with a degree in chemistry and worked as a quality control engineer for Boeing on the aluminum production line where she was the only woman among four thousand men.

“I was just scared to death, basically,” said Simon. “I didn’t think about [taking science classes and being a woman] while I was in school, but when I got to Boeing, it was shocking to me how sexist it was.”

Afterwards, she did medical research for a decade at the University of Chicago and worked as a professional calligrapher from the ’70s through the ’90s before returning to Whitman and earning a teaching certificate in 1992.

“I taught the gifted education program for the school district called Explorers, and then I came back and started teaching a few labs and then more and more and then I’ve been here since 1994,” said Simon.

Paust graduated with an astronomy and physics combined major, and immediately moved on to graduate study.

“I was one of the Whitties who thinks that grad school is the automatic answer after Whitman, so I went to [New Mexico State University] and left there with a master’s degree in 2000,” said Paust.

Through teaching at a community college in the Seattle area, he discovered his love of teaching but wanted more of a challenge.

“I realized that if I was going to teach at a higher level, I was going to have to get a Ph.D, so I then applied and went back to graduate school at Dartmouth,” said Paust.

Upon graduating from Dartmouth in 2006, he completed a postdoctoral fellowship with the Space Telescope Science Institute before becoming a stay-at-home dad for six months. When a visiting position opened up, he returned to Whitman and eventually got on the tenure track.

“After a year, they decided to hire another tenure-track person because the person I was temporarily replacing decided they weren’t coming back,” said Paust.

This magnetic phenomenon does not just apply to professors. Current staff members were just as affected by their time here at Whitman.

Director of Planned Giving Jamie Kennedy graduated in 1996 with an environmental studies and sociology combined major. His first job after graduating was working for Wells Fargo in Portland. Seven years and a few jobs later, he and his wife were living in Sacramento and decided they were just not happy.

Jamie Kennedy, Director of Planned Giving, is a 1996 Whitman alumnus. Photo by Adam Brayton.

“We decided we were at the perfect point [in our lives] to make a major change and try something completely different,” said Kennedy. “Many people thought we were crazy to move to Walla Walla, but we absolutely love it here.”

Having been Whitman students themselves gives professors a unique perspective on their current work for Whitman.

“The emphasis on quality teaching has definitely rubbed off on me, so that as a professor now, I feel a responsibility to my professors who were here before to carry on the tradition of quality teaching,” said Paust.

However, while faculty may feel a burden to live up to their prior teachers, they also have a large responsibility to the students. For these returning alumni, this is their favorite part of the job.

“I love the students. They are so special here and I know that is a really trite answer but it’s really true,” said Simon. “I teach in the summertime a class that’s a National Science Foundation workshop that’s for other professors and when we talk about the things that our students are able to do and the kinds of expectations we have for them, the Whitman students are just so amazing.”

Whitman College is featured in the book “Colleges That Change Lives,” and for many faculty and staff members, the title rings especially true. From finding love to realizing their true passions, they give credit to Whitman.

“Whitman nurtured a habit of lifelong learning and trained me to approach situations analytically and not to accept assumptions,” said Kennedy.

Students should take comfort in faculty members’ assurances that the best preparation they ever received for the “real world” was at Whitman. Stressed seniors may dread the oral and written final exams, but Paust says that they actually make everything easier later on.

“Once you’ve been through that experience, however painful it might be, going and doing master’s exams or Ph.D. exams and thesis defense stuff at other schools, it’s not that big of a deal,” said Paust. “Having had the experience of standing up in front of four of my professors [whom] I really respected and having to not be an idiot made that whole process easier [later].”

Sometimes describing the Whitman experience makes a person sound like they were living inside a Disney fairy tale. People wax nostalgic about talking fish statues, cute ducklings in the springtime, tranquil snowy mornings and the angelic voices of Sirens. But it is the overall lure of Whitman which draws alumni back onto this campus. Like migratory birds, they spread their wings and fly thousands of miles away, only to eventually return home.


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