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Kirkland College logoTo mark the 50th anniversary of the first matriculating class at Kirkland College, the Hamilton magazine asked a handful of alumnae to share how their experiences at Kirkland shaped their lives.
We asked them to dig deeper than memories of a favorite class or a stroll in the Root Glen, but instead to describe how Kirkland inspired their life choices, accomplishments, and who they became. The reflections of nine women follow:

Shelley Gertzog Cowan K’75

I was an explorer as a kid, starting with the woods and creek near my home, then traveling long distances by myself on a Greyhound. Exploring fed my curiosity, gave me agency in the world. That I could have agency in my education was something I hadn’t imagined. Kirkland was about discovering that I could also be an explorer of thought.

With each course, it was my responsibility to choose a certain aspect of the curriculum, study it, and connect it to the whole. It was mine to find the sources, frame the learning, and communicate it to others. Academically, I was exactly who Kirkland wanted.

Kirkland was about discovering that I could also be an explorer of thought.

That I became at anthropologist reflects the Kirkland pedagogy, but it is also a Hamilton story. Early on, the Kirkland and Hamilton anthropology professors decided to work as if they were one department, with courses and faculty that complemented one another. I don’t think many, or any, other K and H departments operated this way. It meant that my earliest Hamilton experiences were with professors who embraced Kirkland and pointed me to other Hamilton professors who also valued our presence on the Hill.

Mindy Sherer Ashton K’72
Among the first Kirkland students was Mindy Sherer Ashton K’72. Green hardhats were issued to Kirkland women, whose campus was still under construction when they arrived on College Hill.

As an anthropology major I spent a semester doing fieldwork in Colombia, studying beliefs about nutrition in an Andean town where Hispanic and indigenous people had intermingled for years. I arranged shorter ethnographic studies as well. I spent two weeks at a coffee plantation documenting the growing, harvesting, and roasting of coffee, and the entrenched poverty of those who worked the farm. I also spent a week in a jungle living with people who didn’t speak Spanish, much less English.

For a 20-year-old to pull off an authentic Margaret Mead experience was an accomplishment. Yes, I was adventurous. But I also had two years of Kirkland behind me: deciding what to learn, figuring out how to learn it, and being in charge of making it happen. This was my college education, and it left me with a fearlessness that remains.

Another Kirkland idea that impacted my life came from the imaginations of those who dreamed up Kirkland in the mid-’60s. Kirkland was meant to cultivate a modern woman; the kind Hamilton men would expect to date and marry. We would have careers, have children, dial back our careers, and maybe reengage when the kids got older. We would be flexible, adaptable to life’s changes. To me, this aspect of Kirkland was both prescient and quaint.

The Kirkland dreamers got much right about the women they imagined. Thanks to Kirkland, I entered the professional world adaptable and unafraid. Long before the times would demand it, I assumed my career and life would require constant change, that I’d always be moving toward something new, that it would be complicated, that I’d have to figure it out, and, for the most part, I would.

Kirkland continues to nourish the explorer in me.
 


 

Heather Saunders Estes K’74

Sitting on the bright orange and red carpet of the Kirkland Pit, I curiously watched Ibby Chiquoine show 50 Kirkland students and a few Hamilton men how to insert a diaphragm, put on condoms, take birth control pills. In 1970, before Roe v. Wade, Planned Parenthood staff came to Rudd Health Center every two weeks to provide exams, birth control, and education — just one of the changes to Hamilton with the arrival of Kirkland women.

Kirkland made it easy for me to be curious. I was intrigued by this new college and the possibility of building a progressive, unique program for women. I explored independent studies right away, and startled my art professor by rendering drawing studies in fabric rather than pencil. Initially skeptical, he thought, then gave a big smile, “Why not?” My senior project was a mythological story quilt about embryonic origins of goats and humans. Interest in sexuality, with rebellious streaks of intellectual risk-taking and justice, fostered by Kirkland, took me through the long 37 year run of my career as Planned Parenthood CEO in Northern California. I fell in love my future husband, Fred Estes ’72, and became a Planned Parenthood volunteer on campus. I led “rap sessions,” counseled and assisted the nurse practitioners, even joined the organization’s board of directors in Utica as a “consumer” member.

Kirkland eagerly demanded I take responsibility for my own education. Real-life experiences in college earned me expertise to make a difference. I learned skills to question, challenge, speak up, and take charge. Other lessons — the best way to enjoy an upstate New York winter is to cross-country ski off into Kirkland Woods, take cold adversity and turn it into heated adventure. As a ceramics major with Professor Robert Palusky, I discovered the hard way that process of creation is more important than product. My beautiful hand-thrown bowl was broken by a dropped kiln shelf while still warm from the fire. Yet, it had a different useful life going forward — crushed into grog lending strength to new clay.

The clash of cultures between Kirkland and Hamilton showed me that we can learn from others who do not think like us — understanding desperately needed right now.

With Kirkland’s help, by the time I was a CEO, at 26, I already knew how to meet my failures and adversity with optimism and the heart to build something good from the ashes of our fire-bombed clinics. Skills I brought to manage an engaged staff in politically confrontational and emotionally fraught work were begun at Kirkland. Independence of mind, cooperation, and teamwork permeated the air on the Hill.

Both colleges have been particularly on my mind these past two years, as I finished my CEO role in such disturbing political times. The clash of cultures between Kirkland and Hamilton showed me that we can learn from others who do not think like us — understanding desperately needed right now. The co-ed Hamilton of today is far stronger for Kirkland’s existence.
 


 

Annie Karl Halvorsen K’76

In an apple orchard on a hill, an idea forged from words and time by visionary men and women grew into Kirkland College. I was there. We were there. And we thought of it as a physical place for a little while. But perhaps the gift is learning it was not.

Kirkland very much still exists and is alive in many hearts and minds, not locked in time or place, but is still a living growing experience, as long as we who are bound to her breathe and live and grow. She is sometimes confused with the “Kirkland” that we identify as structure or space, which is locked in the texture of our memories, the condensed thick feeling of time long ago. But she is not.

Kirkland is the tapestry of threads between us that connect us to honor a picture of the younger, rougher us. More or less intensely, more or less consciously, we continue to weave the invisible fabric, writing and rewriting memory, rewriting a story of loss and gain. Now, 40 years later, it is a story, a legend, a dream. Loss is felt so much more acutely with time, and expressed with wistfulness, melancholy and even resentment, but we also have a chance to talk about gain, strength, humor, wonder, love. We can talk about learning, knowledge and wisdom.

Studying in a classroom (1972)
Who needs desks and chairs? Studying in a classroom (1972).

Most of what I learned at Kirkland I learned after I left. Each one of us loves and holds a different Kirkland than the ones held by each other. There are as many Kirklands as there are people in whose lives she has been allowed to enter, like a hologram, each Kirkland complete and whole. Not static but fluid: a relationship with ourselves and with each other, both living and gone, constantly growing and ebbing over time. We are all grown and so different. What is Kirkland now? Does it resemble, even a little bit, that time in our lives? We are all rich and complex, so many different gifts, generations of wisdom and experience that fold back on themselves, transcending time. We are so tender, so hard, so brittle, so resilient. Kirkland is all that, because we are all that.

Did the short life of the college make our experience more precious? If Kirkland College were still running full force, how would we feel? Would I feel the same depth of bond? Would we even like what the college would become? We will never know the answers. But we were there. We were together for a short time, and the wail of our grief may still echo when we peer into that crazy time capsule of the 1970s. But I cannot even remember myself back then; how can I remember you? I continue to be shocked when I look at old photos. Was that really us? What was Kirkland then? I have rewritten her over and over as I grew older.

Kirkland very much still exists and is alive in many hearts and minds, not locked in time or place, but is still a living growing experience, as long as we who are bound to her breathe and live and grow.

What did we lose? Nothing. Would you have chosen to be elsewhere? If so, how do you know? We are larger now than we were. We understand so much better now what we had than we did then.

We were us for a little while on a hill that was once an orchard, a farm, wilderness, and although we were together in time, we were each at our own Kirkland. My story about that is wonderful. I would love to hear yours.
 



Nanelle Napp K’74

Conforming is the antithesis of a Kirkland education; and seeking that antithesis is exactly why I went to Kirkland. Up until then, I had attended Catholic school. I was well practiced in conforming to rules and standards.

As I considered going away to college, I knew I wanted change. In 1971, the year that I applied to Kirkland, societal change was rampant. The National Women’s Political Caucus (NWPC) was founded. Ms. magazine was first published. Washington State became the first state to ban sex discrimination and the voting age was lowered to 18. That May, I got my acceptance; in August, I arrived on the Kirkland campus.

Now, I was on my own, independent for the first time. No curfews, no parents, no nuns overseeing my daily routine. For me, this was a big deal. But, my challenges were deeper. I entered Kirkland naïve, scared, uncomfortable about who exactly I was. Though I’d selected Kirkland because I wanted to think for myself, at my core, I was still a middle-schooler hoping to fit in with the right group. That seemed impossible. Most of the young women I met were from Manhattan, Brooklyn, Long Island, Westchester, or Boston. I was from a tiny town at the edge of the Catskills. And, while there were many students from boarding schools or elite public schools, there weren’t a lot of women with a Catholic school background. I felt lost. Making things worse, my courses were filled with students who eagerly spoke up, wrote eloquent papers, and seemed perfectly at ease with themselves at Kirkland.

Kirkland students in the Chapel
New students gather in the Chapel for opening ceremonies (1968).

Luckily for me, from this fragile beginning, I grew and, eventually, I found my voice. My roommate Nancy showed me how to write an essay. I took wonderful courses in photography. I was mesmerized by Professor Fred Wagner’s 20th-Century American Drama course and his belief that each student should develop their critical imagination. Professor Austin Briggs challenged me repeated to think critically and express myself clearly. Over time, I met diverse, interesting, and accessible women who were studying ceramics, writing poetry, preparing for law school or medical school. I also became friends with Hamilton students, some who helped me with my studies and, more importantly, who treated me as a person.

I learned to focus from within, form my own ideas, and find to my own conclusions. This journey has become foundational to my life. Time after time, I’ve experienced what it means to not conform, to not do what’s expected.

Not doing what’s expected helped me recognize when I was in an unhealthy marriage and I needed a divorce. Going against the norm allowed me as a single mom to move from Connecticut to North Carolina with my 6-year-old son for better work/life balance. Going against the norm continues to allow me to be an independent thinker within a major corporation. In my company, I am a leader who speaks up consistently. I ask questions others aren’t willing to pose. And, because I use my voice, I have also become a leader in our company’s volunteer efforts aimed at educating children and adults in need. I influence and coordinate hundreds of volunteers in Charlotte to give their time and talents to create positive learning opportunities for at-risk and disadvantaged students. Our efforts help students visualize opportunity and gain hope.

I believe the transition I made at Kirkland allowed me to grow into a thinking, independent woman. I must add that I also love Hamilton College, the professors who I taught me, and the students who became lifelong friends. I believe anyone who wants to practice being a non-conformist needs to recognize the value in people and to also be willing to share her ideas to help shape the part of the future that she can influence.
 



Wendy Page K’72

A comment from my sister helped me clarify Kirkland’s impact on my life. She said the two careers open to a working-class girl in the late ’60s who managed to get a college education were teaching and nursing. Those were the prescribed, attainable goals. She said I was incredibly brave to do something different, that I had so much imagination and drive to break out of that pattern.

Judy and I grew up in Deansboro, five miles away from the Kirkland campus. She, two years younger than I, was a member of the first class of Colgate University women matriculating in 1970, just I was in the charter class of Kirkland beginning in 1968. She was a terrific high school English teacher for her whole career. I have been an artist, working at the Boston MFA School of Art for 10 years, a software engineer and manager for 25 years, and am now an ordained minister doing chaplaincy work with end-of-life patients.

It takes a lot of energy and courage to change careers midlife and I think the foundation I received at Kirkland has given me the confidence and imagination to do so.

Kirkland gave me room to explore beyond those expectations I carried with me to college. During my four years on the Hill, I traveled to England for the first time. Actually, I traveled to New York City for the first time, too. My world literally opened up. I widened my horizons on campus and started taking ceramics and photography classes. It gave me confidence that I could try new things, that I knew how to learn. And it gave me the space to dream, to follow my callings. It allowed me to go to art school, engineering school, divinity school, to reinvent myself as I evolved and grew.

Kirkland was a safe space to connect with other women and feel their support. It would be another couple years before I would identify myself as a lesbian, but Kirkland gave me a grounding to explore my sexuality.

Throughout my life, I have had the confidence to try new things. I learned how to study and embrace a new field of study on the Hill. I have been able to be competent and excel in several fields. More importantly, I have also had the ability to listen to that small nagging voice inside which has told me it was time to set out in a new direction. It takes a lot of energy and courage to change careers midlife and I think the foundation I received at Kirkland has given me the confidence and imagination to do so.

My most recent career change to ministry as a chaplain, was inspired by my own cancer diagnoses in 1995 and again in 2013. I am grateful to be alive. Companioning people who are facing difficult choices and transitions in their lives, or the lives of those they love, is a privilege and the most rewarding work that I have done.

I have loved discovering other Kirkland women who have grown and changed over the years. It has been a joy to be among their number and feel the validation of always learning and growing.
 


 



Patti Pomerantz K’75

Kirkland was not where I expected to go to college. But there I was on the Hill in 1971. I spent four intense, enlightening, challenging, and surprising years that now seem like only an instant of my life. It’s hard to recall what it was like to unpack in the double room of a suite. And I don’t remember the names of my first suitemates, my short-lived roommate, or most of my classes. I don’t even remember the names of many of my instructors.

I was a passionate student with a strong sense of social justice, but I had no focus. I ended up creating a concentration that I never really used. That was disappointing, though I’m not sure it really mattered in the long run. I loved my classes for the most part, enjoyed my dorm and later apartment life, and made some close friends. Sadly, I lost touch with most of them when I moved to the West Coast in 1983. Kirkland had already become Hamilton, and the West Coast events were for a very different lifestyle than mine.

moving inSo I am looking at my time at Kirkland from a very long distance. And I’ve had a variety of careers, the most recent being Unitarian Universalist ministry. As I reflect back, there are aspects of my time on the Hill that continue to inform my life. Most obvious, Kirkland is where I came out as a lesbian when the world was not particularly accommodating. But there are other, less-obvious traits that I developed there. Kirkland taught me that it’s okay to live outside the expected. It taught me to read and think critically, and to be succinct — something some of my congregants might dispute. And it gave me a sense of worth and belonging as I worked in the Admissions Office my entire time on campus.

I love the variety of classes I took, including electronic music. I’m not sure I can articulate what I got from that particular experience, but I know that I learned to approach whatever I was studying from my own perspective — that originality was something to cultivate. That lesson has served me well through careers in education (I returned to school for a master’s degree in education administration), small-business and non-profit consulting, and finally, at least at this writing, my career in ministry.

Most surprising has been how completely Kirkland has disappeared from my daily life. It wasn’t intentional. Perhaps writing this reflection will help me find my way back.
 



Julie Beinecke Stackpole K’72

Fifty years ago in 1968, the charter class of Kirkland arrived on the Hill to put into practice the experiment that was a new women’s coordinate college with a 150-year-old men’s college. When asked “Why Kirkland,” the trustees reiterated that Hamilton needed to expand but not as coed, that a women’s college could serve the needs of young women while strengthening Hamilton. Thus, wherever Hamilton was weak, Kirkland could supply the courses, and vice versa, so while Hamilton had biology, Kirkland had botany, etc. The result for either Kirkland or Hamilton students was a still-small and personal college with a very full offering of courses. Hamilton was old and traditional; Kirkland was new and experimental.

As the stepdaughter of Walter Beinecke, the Hamilton trustee who was the prime mover in the creation of Kirkland, I had been aware of the plans for Kirkland for years before it finally opened. But I might not have gone there if I had not been in that first class. We all had just finished enjoying the privileges of being seniors in our assorted high schools. Being in the charter class meant that we were always seniors, even when freshmen. And we were partly responsible for determining what it became.

That first year, Kirkland consisted only of the three dormitories, Major, Minor, and Macintosh, in an old apple orchard that had become a sea of mud, as noisy construction continued on McEwen Dining Hall and the art building. Classes were held in various Hamilton spots such as Bristol Campus Center, science labs, and tucked into two former maintenance buildings that had become Kirkland’s offices. We trudged down the unpaved road from our dorms to Commons to eat, and waited between classes in nooks and crannies of the old library.

Numerous “town meetings” were held in the science lecture hall to discuss and determine what the rules would be, in true democratic argument and debate. At a banquet in Commons, we were told we were pioneers, and each given a personalized construction helmet and a paring knife, symbols of our situation in shaping the apple that was Kirkland. We reveled in our freedom to create, exemplified by the diplomas we designed for our graduation in 1972 with an optional rubber stamp across the dignified text.

1968 Kirkland College Convocation.
1968 Kirkland College Convocation.

The other appeal of Kirkland was that it would not have grades and exams, just pass/fail. This meant that you had to be responsible and self-directed. For some, that allowed them to be party girls. To others such as me, it meant that I could pursue studies because I was interested in the subject, not in order to get a certain grade. At Kirkland, I started as a medieval literature scholar because of Dean Inez Nelbach, but also was able to take advantage of Natalie Babbitt’s children’s book courses, and finally graduated as a literature major that the Art and Botany departments also claimed. Most classes were small and taught in a seminar format that promoted participation.

After college, I studied hand bookbinding for three years at various places in the U.S., Switzerland, and England, essentially developing my own graduate curriculum in the way I had learned at Kirkland. This was so that I could live on Nantucket (or wherever) and be a self-employed bookbinder, book restorer, and illustrator, which I still am. I also am a self-taught period costume historian and creator, organic gardener, environmentalist, and active in small town institutions like the historical society. The Kirkland traditions of eclectic scholarship and self-motivation continue in my life.
 


 


Julie Weinstein K’75

From the minute I discovered that Kirkland existed, I knew it was where I needed to go (which required a huge amount of lobbying of my parents). I grew up near NYC in a very open, liberal, feminist-focused home, so there were many things I never considered as issues or challenged myself about. At Kirkland I learned so much about myself, other people, ideas, the world, that I didn’t know I needed to learn when I was growing up, and which I wouldn’t have opened to without the small, very intimate environment of Kirkland classes and Kirkland in general.

Classes, professors, friends, and people who weren’t friends, but who I learned to listen to nevertheless, constantly challenged me intellectually and personally to dig deep, to debate, to open up to other ways of seeing the world than what I had been brought up with. I learned how to really hone a poem (I was a Creative Writing major or a paper), to look for essential elements, and to use language well. I spent a lot of time alone walking in the Glen and in the field, which at that time was a great place of wild grasses, random flowers, hawks, and mouse nests, discovering my own moral and emotional resources and strengths, as well as a spiritual nature I had never connected with previously. When I was preparing for my senior poetry reading and my advisor told me to find a quiet place where I could speak my poems aloud, I found a secret place in the Glen where I went every day, and gained not just a voice and presence, but a deep understanding of the connection between creativity and nature.

dog in residence hall
A canine friend peers through a residence hall window.

I never became a poet; I wasn’t good enough, though I maintain an excellent capacity for writing which I have used throughout my working life. I left New York for Los Angeles (excellent for maturing and developing myself; terrible for my soul). I got an M.A. in psychology, and when all my fellow classmates were doing their internships with well-funded agencies or large psychology practices, I did mine at a poorly funded community counseling center with substance abusers whose children were involved with foster care, which I found immensely satisfying in ways I could not have imagined. I then worked with the Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services as a supervisor, training social workers to assess and work with families from both a critical and compassionate perspective, and my unit had an excellent success rate in sending children home.

I also finally came out as a lesbian – something I had been too afraid to do even at Kirkland – and my then-partner and I were among the early pioneering lesbians who had a child (now 27 through donor insemination; my birth child, who my partner also adopted). I moved back to New York in 2009 and remade my life. I got an M.S. in global affairs with a humanitarian focus and a thesis on alternative therapeutic interventions with refugees. I am now an adjunct teaching psychology at a community college with a population consisting largely of students who are immigrants or children of immigrants, of low income, who are older, who are veterans, who have mental health disorders, who are parents or caregivers for aging parents, and who constantly inspire me.

I have taken the foundation I gained at Kirkland, combined with who I am and all my life experiences, to be open to people, experiences, the directions life has taken me, and hopefully to give back for everything I have been given.
 



Maria Zammit K’74

What could ever be the allure of a college, barely accredited and barely built, more like a construction zone dotted with apple trees and the occasional meandering cow that lost its way? Especially to a city kid, more used to the offerings of an urban lifestyle than a village surrounding a green, with a couple of bars for entertainment. (The Cannonball Theater on Fountain Street had yet to be built in the fall of 1970.)

This pioneer spirit, this leap of faith that each and every Kirkland student took (and more than a few Hamilton men who frequented classes on our side of the campus) has stayed with me my entire life.

Not yet a fully realized bricks and mortar entity when I showed up in August ’70, Kirkland’s appeal was more than that: it was a promise and an ideal — an experiment in education that would go beyond rote training and, instead, help to foster a generation of creative women, not afraid to experiment, comfortable taking on leadership roles, and boldly expressing their opinions.

The Kirkland acceptance letter said it all (and this is a gross paraphrase): We offer you nothing but mud, construction, hard hats, and the hope of a first-class education in an innovative and life-changing way. And so it did, including the hard hats that came with the territory. It didn’t matter that there weren’t enough dorms, and the ones that were there didn’t have names — or donors —yet. But what did matter was Kirkland’s appeal to a certain kind of woman, to a pioneering spirit who would take chances and classes that would push beyond comfort zones, encourage flexibility and adaptability (did we even have a choice?). It truly was, as Kierkegaard stated, “a leap of faith.” Indulge your curiosity; don’t play it safe; be challenged academically; and, if you don’t see what you want, make it happen … all part of a Kirkland education.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Speaking out at a student protest in the Chapel (1970).

This pioneer spirit, this leap of faith that each 1970 protestand every Kirkland student took (and more than a few Hamilton men who frequented classes on our side of the campus) has stayed with me my entire life. And Kirkland wasn’t just an attitude or way of looking at the world — though it was definitely that. There was academic rigor as well. Even though there weren’t conventional exams and grades, there was instead a never-ending demand on writing skills and drafting essays. After semesters of struggling through essay after essay, trying to capture thoughts into a coherent and compelling argument, who among us didn’t long for a simple, multiple-answer alternative? Let our sufferings be quick rather than drawn out over long hours of sweat, tears, and gallons of white-out (no easy Word or “delete” buttons back then; just one messy typewriter page after another).

Fast forward a year or so after graduation (applications to law school having been jettisoned on a whim to do something different first) to a 14-month backpacking journey around the world — channeling my inner Kirkland spirit — that found me far from a law career but pursuing international relations instead. If nothing else, Kirkland taught me flexibility. (That backpacking trip would find me introducing Frisbee to Herat, Afghanistan, before it ever had electricity and the only woman playing Frisbee with the town’s men and boys who clambered all over trucks and buses trying to catch it.)

Afterward, working for the late Ambassador Richard C. Holbrooke and, through my work with the World Affairs Council system, I would find myself falling back on the skill sets that shaped me at Kirkland: willingness to take on the unknown, a certain degree of fearlessness (recklessness?), assuming leadership roles and — always — writing reams of papers and presentations. When our ambassador to Iraq in 2009, Ryan C. Crocker, asked me to lead a World Affairs Council delegation there (as blasts were commonly heard across town, and rockets often lobbed at our embassy in Baghdad), many of my male colleagues whom I had asked to join the delegation responded with: “Are you out of your mind?!” The same in 2012, when I led a delegation to Afghanistan. Finally persuading a few to join me, we all found it the most rewarding experience of our lives.

So, in the end, all those late-night essays, gallons of white-out, and endless community meetings in KJ’s Red Pit became vital foundation blocks of my career.


Originally published in the winter 2019 issue of the Hamilton magazine.

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