Talk of the Quad: Where there's a Wil: the story of Wil Smith '00
Wil Smith ’00 came very close to missing the first day of classes the fall of his first year at Bowdoin. At the end of August in 1996, he happened to be driving past campus and wondered when the semester was starting. He’d been accepted to the College the previous spring, but no longer lived at the address Bowdoin had on file from his application and had not received any preparatory material. So he was surprised when the deans informed him that classes began the next day.
He scrambled to make up for the time he’d lost in missing Orientation and began the semester with the rest of the student body that week. At 26-years-old, Wil was nearly a decade older than many of his new peers. When he showed up for his classes he brought an unannounced plus-one that caught his professors off-guard: his 16-month-old daughter, Olivia, who he was raising as a single father.
Professor Roy Partridge taught Wil’s First Year Seminar, “Racism.” He hid his surprise when Olivia and Wil came to class.
“I’d never had this experience before in my life,” he said. “I’d been teaching 15-20 years.”
Bowdoin in many ways was a whole new world for Wil, although one he would remain embedded in long after graduation. He grew up in Jacksonville, Fla., the youngest of 10 children. His mother died of cancer when he was 15.
Before Bowdoin, Wil spent seven years as an aviation electronics technician, specializing in land-based anti-submarine aircraft in the Navy. He enlisted three years after he finished high school and served in the first Gulf War. He was deployed to all corners of the globe: Sicily, Bosnia, Saudi Arabia, Iceland, Greenland, Panama, Puerto Rico and Argentina.
Growing up he had loved to read and learn about different places and people, and travel was one of the aspects he most enjoyed about the Navy. While deployed overseas, he made extra effort to immerse himself in the places he was stationed, often venturing to areas the Navy had told him not to go in search of normal people living everyday life. He was frequently in places he did not speak the language of, but he communicated with charades or napkin-drawings. He says he “learned from the common people that most people in this world just want to go about their business, they’re not concerned with these issues that the government is waging wars about.”
When I spoke with him, he was reticent about his war stories and careful not to sensationalize his experiences in the Navy, evincing the humility and tendency to emphasize his role as always one piece of a collaboration, rather than take credit or attention for himself. He consented to tell me one story about the time he was sure he would get shot down flying a special operations mission over Turkey.
“I guess the Turkish government didn’t know we were there and they sent planes up and I was looking out the window and I was looking at these jet planes with these missiles ready to fire and somebody yelling in the headphones. I thought we were goners. And then within seconds they were gone, and I caught my breath again.”
When he was not deployed, Wil was based at the Naval Air Station in Brunswick, which ultimately connected him to the College. He had played baseball, basketball and football in high school and in his off-hours, he coached football and basketball at the Brunswick Junior High School. (Men’s soccer Head Coach Scott Wiercinski was one of the students he coached in basketball.) Some parents were initially skeptical of him, but his dedication to the kids on the team quickly won them over. It was here that he met Tim Gilbride, the Bowdoin men’s basketball coach, who would eventually convince Wil to apply to Bowdoin and to play on the basketball team.
The transition from life in the Navy to life as a student at Bowdoin had a steep learning curve for Wil. He was one of three African-American students in the class of 2000.
He hadn’t told anyone at Bowdoin much about his situation. He was living off-campus and took Olivia with him everywhere because he couldn’t afford daycare. Having missed Orientation, he didn’t know about how to sign up for a meal plan, or that he didn’t have to buy all his books but could read them on reserve in the library. In the Navy he had learned how to tinker with the hardware of computers but had never used word processing. He hadn’t been in a formal classroom since high school and did not feel his high school had prepared him for the rigors of Bowdoin:
“I had never been asked to write a critical paper, where I had to show, create a strong thesis and support it with evidence from the text.”
Wil struggled. He failed a Latin American history class with Professor Allen Wells because he wasn’t able to buy all the books; Dean Tim Foster was the Dean of First Year Students at the time and Wil was the first student he met with on the job. Foster recalls that Wil lost nearly 20 pounds and he vocalized anger at “the manifestation of a very unfair and unjust education system in the U.S. playing itself out at Bowdoin co-starring [himself].”
His classes introduced him to material and modes of thinking he had never encountered in high school. In the divides between his classmates and himself, he saw the disparities between most Bowdoin students—whose high school education had prepared them to be leaders—and the people from his community who he felt had been prepared, “at best, to be managers at McDonalds.”
“We never talked about the grand theories of social structure,” he recalled. “Where I came from we talked about racism as a practical entity which we were experiencing, but never studied it in a sociological or economic framework. To hear that some of these kids came understanding the frameworks, was in many ways maddening to me, because this was the first time as a 27-year-old, who had been in a war and travelled around the world, had ever heard these concepts. And it made me feel like I was never meant to understand them.”
His difficulties did not go unnoticed. That first fall Professor Partridge went to the dean’s office to ask what kind of support they could give Wil. Foster told me that the College was prepared to do nontraditional things to help a nontraditional student succeed.
Betty Trout-Kelly, the assistant to the president for multicultural affairs and affirmative action, reached out. She said she didn’t know what Wil was dealing with, but that Bowdoin would not let him go through it alone. After telling his story, the administration quickly marshaled resources for Wil. They got him an apartment in Brunswick Apartments and a meal plan. An alum donated $25,000 to cover child care expenses for Olivia.
The more time he spent with students at Bowdoin, the more he began to think differently about being a student here. Basketball season started and the team immediately embraced Wil.
“I got to know my friends on the team, those guys were really good to me, and some of my babysitters for Olivia. They were good people. And it was hard for me to reconcile my disdain for a group of people when they were treating me so kindly.”
His teammates, Coach Gilbride and his wife, Lisa, were among the first people he trusted with Olivia and remain some of his closest friends.
He remembered a turning point in an Econ 102 lecture where the professor was talking about the boom of the Reagan years and the benefits of supply-side economics. He saw the other students nodding in agreement but felt that growing up had shown him that the things at the top never quite trickle all the way down.
“In my community, it was none of the rosy stuff that this guy was describing. It was rampant unemployment, crack cocaine, the beginning of the war against drugs, the war against black men,” he remembered. He started building relationships with other students too, who were interested in hearing and learning more about his experiences.
He got involved with a group of students on campus who “challenged the school to change the composition of the school, the demographics of the school, and it wasn’t just the students of color at the time, it was a lot of the majority students as well. They wanted people from backgrounds who were not like theirs to enhance their education.”
When Wil graduated in 2000, he ascended the museum steps carrying Olivia. The two of them received his degree in sociology and economics and a standing ovation from the crowd. As a senior, he was the captain of the basketball team and received the athletics award for outstanding commitment to community service, an award which was later renamed in his honor. After graduation he stayed at Bowdoin, in the Office of the Dean of Student Affairs , working to continue the diversity initiatives he had begun as a student.
After several years, Wil left Bowdoin and got his law degree at the University of Maine, although soon after his graduation, Foster and several other administrators took him out for dinner and implored him to return to Bowdoin as the associate dean of multicultural affairs, a position they had created for Wil. Wil returned to the College dedicated to changing Bowdoin from—in his words—an institution for smart, East Coast kids that didn’t get into the Ivies to a place for dedicated students from high schools across the country.
Talk of the Quad: Adventure or bust
Two weeks ago this evening, I was sitting at dinner when the conversation somehow turned to speculation about police interactions. My roommate insisted that she would rather be arrested than receive a fine—we pushed back on this, I think fairly—and she admitted that her inclination toward incarceration was because that would make a better story. We all laughed about this, but then acknowledged the motivating power of the do-it-for-the-story mentality.
An hour after this conversation, my aforementioned roommate, Erica, and I were on our bikes, wrangling a few more of our friends to come down to the ocean with us. We were going out into the night and pursuing that flighty temptress, Adventure, but I’m not sure we totally pulled off the aesthetic. The moon was full, but I was wearing my headlamp, and Erica—whose bike is a single-gear situation with foot-brakes alone—was wearing a helmet.
We were the last of our friends to arrive at Simpson’s Point. I turned too early and we ended up on a winding scenic route that cut through the woods before opening onto rolling fields that were eerily beautiful in the dim light. The boys were all lying by the water with their faces inches from the waves, literally watching the tide come in, when we arrived. They gave that up eventually and we sat on the rocks yelling over the wind. When they announced they were leaving for campus, Erica and I pretended to follow them before turning around and heading back to the shore.
Republicans, Entrepreneurs still unchartered
Several organizations that were active presences on campus last year have not yet been re-chartered for this academic year. Among them are Jewish lobbying group J-Street U, Bowdoin Entrepreneurs and the Bowdoin College Republicans, according to the Office of Student Activities.
Every spring, the leaders of all organizations re-charter their clubs for the next year with Student Activities. Nathan Hintze, associate director of student activities, explained that the leadership turnover is not always smooth and it typically takes some time at the beginning of each fall semester for Student Activities to get a fully accurate roster of campus organizations and their leaders. He expects that in the next month they will probably all be back.
“J-Street was very active last year,” said Hintze. “I know there are leaders this year, they just haven’t re-chartered with us yet.”
Orientation: Course selection: a brief how-to guide
The Bowdoin experience extends well beyond academics, but a large part of college is unavoidably spent in the classroom—a Bowdoin student with four classes will spend on average 12 hours in class per week, and much more than that in Hawthorne-Longfellow or Hatch Library.
The days of evenly-spaced periods of history, math, science and English are over: you are no longer obligated to have a well-rounded schedule. And because of this newfound freedom, it is well worth your time and effort to put some thought into choosing courses first semester. This is the time to experiment with new disciplines and to see what you like and what you don’t; try not to confine yourself to the handful of departments you liked most in high school.
Though some of you first years may have mapped out your whole life in seventh grade and already know exactly what you’ll be taking all eight semesters of college, most will be going into first semester with only a hazy idea of where your academic interests lie.Below a few thoughts on figuring it out.
Talk of the Quad: Biking in India: More Than Just Point A to Point B
My primary mode of transportation around the chaotic, traffic-choked Indian metropolis I am calling home this semester is a retro-looking yellow fixed-gear bicycle with a big basket in the front, the kind of upright job the kids ride around in “Stand By Me” or “Now and Then.”
I almost look like I’ve made a wrong turn out of my 1960’s suburban cul-de-sac, except for the decidedly not-nostalgic helmet I bought the first day I took the thing out on the roads. This was not entirely my own decision—when I told my mother I was going to be biking, she asked if I had a helmet. When I said I didn’t, and that athough bikes are ubiquitous here, protective headgear is not, she wondered whether I wouldn’t feel very stupid if I ever sustained an injury I could have prevented but didn’t because I was worried about standing out. (Her point was well taken, since in Pune, as a white woman wearing jeans and standing a good few inches above at least half the people I pass by, I’ve already pretty much lost the battle of not standing out. So I wear the helmet and endure feeling like a complete dork, and repeat the mantra, “better to be uncool and sentient, than cool and vegetative,” while I’m en route.)
Along with Vespa-type scooters and motorcycles, bicycles are definitely one of the popular ways to get around in Pune. On a bicycle you can cut through the gaps between cars and trucks to the front of a line of traffic, or successfully run red lights—as long as no cars are coming perpendicularly to you.
Election calls into question free speech, balance of discourse on campus
With the election four days away, political discussion on campus is sparking questions of bias and free speech. In last week’s New York Times op-ed “Feigning Free Speech on Campus,” Greg Lukianoff, the president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), decried the proliferation of speech codes at institutions of higher learning. Lukianoff contended that the codes not only fly in the face of the intellectual free enquiry colleges and universities value, “suppressing free expression instead of allowing for open debate of controversial issues,” but also would not pass constitutional muster at public institutions.
Justices hear oral arguments in affirmative action case
The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case of Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, marking the first time in a decade the high court has heard a case challenging the constitutionality of affirmative action admission policies at institutions of higher education.
Talk of the Quad: Consider the rabbi
I’m a religion major, as it turns out, and a lot of my impulse to do this came from what I’ve learned in classes at Bowdoin. But participating in the service wasn’t the transformative thing I thought it might be.
New system to change College House affiliation
On Wednesday, Dean of Student Affairs Tim Foster announced that the current system of affiliation between first-year bricks and College Houses will come to an end next fall, when each College House will instead be affiliated with floors from various first year bricks.
Orientation: Course selection: a how-to guide
The Bowdoin experience extends well beyond academics, but a large part of college is unavoidably spent in the classroom—a Bowdoin student with four classes will spend on average 12 hours in class per week, and much more than that hitting the books in the Hawthorne-Longfellow or Hatch Libraries.
Housing lottery begins with quints and quads
The 2012 housing lottery began on Tuesday, filling 377 beds in quint and quad units. Though not without standard amounts of drama and disappointment, the lottery went relatively smoothly, thanks in part to live updates from residential life over Twitter throughout the evening and the lottery instructions that were projected on a continuous loop behind the sign-up tables. Daggett Lounge was packed when the event started at 6 p.m., but many students left after Lisa Rendall, associate director of housing operations, reminded the crowd that the quints lottery would take place first.
Foxconn controversy reveals campus news consumption
I went to Smith Union on Tuesday evening intending to find a handful of students to talk to me about the stories that have been percolating in the national news about Apple, Foxconn, and labor exploitation in China. Walking around the Union, I counted 70 people and at least 70 Apple products including MacBooks, iPods and iPhones.
Rapper Childish Gambino to headline Ivies Concert
Childish Gambino will headline this year's Ivies Concert, along with the indie-pop duo Phantogram and the DJ mash-up artist Milkman, according to the Entertainment Board (E-Board). Ivies, which will take place Saturday April 28, is the biggest show the E-Board plans each year and is both eagerly anticipated and widely attended by students. The E-Board's primary considerations in selecting the acts were the results of a student survey conducted last semester.
Dean's List to perform Feb 18, Ivies under wraps
Students will have to wait at least another month for the much-anticipated announcement of the acts that will headline this year's Ivies concert, according to the Entertainment Board (E-Board). Nonetheless, to tide students over, the E-Board is bringing DJ/rap trio The Dean's List to play Smith Union on February 18 for its winter concert.
Distribution requirement reform is elusive
For those students fed up with the challenge of finding courses that will satisfy their distribution requirements, relief does not appear on the horizon.
NESCAC to survey on-campus alcohol use
In the aftermath of a series of conversations between NESCAC student affairs deans, Bowdoin will join eight other colleges in the conference in conducting comprehensive surveys on student alcohol consumption. The plan for the spring survey was crystallized last week at the NESCAC deans' annual meeting in Boston.
C-store’s convenient location trumps inflated prices, students say
Ask a Bowdoin student about the prices at the C-Store, and the response is almost uniformly a comment on the high costs, accompanied by a resigned shake of the head. The C-Store, based on these responses, has become decidedly more expensive.
Bowdoin Brief: Quinby House experiences changes in leadership
Following the removal of three residents by the Office of Residential Life (ResLife), Quinby House has undergone several changes in leadership. According to the policy outlined in the College House Constitution, the vice president will assume the presidency if that position becomes vacant. Former vice president Maura Allen '14 is the new president of Quinby House. The house elected Sam Shapiro '14 to the vice presidency.
College employees' dependents see relatively small tuition benefits
The job market in academia is notoriously cut-throat. Colleges vie for the best professors to teach students and draw research grants, while newly-minted Ph.D.s must fight tooth-and-nail for visiting professorships, let alone tenure-track positions. So when it comes to the benefits packages offered by schools, professors are not usually in a position of leverage.
49 Colby students charged with underage drinking in police raid
In the aftermath of a Waterville Police Department (WPD) raid on an off-campus party last weekend, more than 50 Colby students are now facing alcohol-related charges.
Sexual misconduct policy receives minor revisions
While many of the changes this year are visibly noticeable, one of the most important improvements to life at Bowdoin is invisible to the naked eye. Per federal order, Bowdoin has revised its sexual assauly and harrassement policy, though Dean of Student Affairs Tim Foster said the changes are slight.
MCC awards honor community service
Community service and civic participation are deeply ingrained in the Bowdoin ethos. In a testament to these principles, Samantha Collins '11, Sarah Pritzker '11 and Associate Professor of Education Charles Dorn were recently honored by the Maine Campus Compact (MCC) for their ongoing commitment to these pillars of the College.
Bowdoin Brief: Four faculty members raised to endowed professorships
The College recently elevated four faculty members to endowed chair positions in recognition of their work in various fields of study.
AddSeven, expanding its reach, widely embraced at Middlebury
As finals loom and the relaxation enjoyed during Spring Break becomes a distant memory, the skepticism surrounding AddSeven.com—which was launched soon after students returned from vacation in March—has also faded away. The website is the brainchild of seniors Yoni Ackerman and Noah Isaacson, and in the month since the site launched, 717 Bowdoin students registered. Now, Ackerman and Isaacson have expanded to include networks for Bates, Colby and Middlebury.
Quints, quads lotteries run smoothly after email mishap
Daggett Lounge buzzed with nervous anticipation on Wednesday and Thursday evenings as students assembled for the quints and quads housing lotteries. Emotions ran from excited relief to frustrated disappointment as more blocks were entered in both lotteries than there were rooms available.
SWAT to introduce new digest after year of discussion, design
The Student Web Advisory Team (SWAT) has spent the past year working on two coordinated projects; redesigning the campus digest and the student gateway. The Bowdoin community will soon see at least one portion of the team's extensive labor come to fruition; pending the finalized technical details, SWAT will start testing the new digest at the beginning of next week.
English Department hosts first seminar on ‘Writing for Money’
To the casual observer, it might be easy to consider the various trends of struggling bookstores, folding magazines, and massive layoffs at the largest newspapers as indicative of an increasingly bleak landscape for people interested in making a career of writing. The reality is not as dire as the statistics may suggest.
Alternative Spring Break traverses continent
Eight student groups spread out across the North American continent during the first week of Spring Break as part of this year's community service Alternative Spring Break (ASB) trips, sponsored by the McKeen Center for the Common Good. 81 students participated this year and their feedback on the 2011 ASB program has been overwhelmingly positive.
SWAT works to upgrade digest, limit class e-mails
There is no shortage of means of communication on campus: innumerable posters vie for student's attention on the walls of public spaces and students receive fliers in the mailboxes—at least until BSG voted on Wednesday to stop the practice. Arguably the most heavily-trafficked advertising venue is e-mail, however. Student inboxes are inundated every day with the student digest and a veritable flood of campus-wide messages announcing everything from College House parties to summer job opportunities.
Women’s swimming takes 10th, men prepare to host NESCACs
The women's swimming and diving team wrapped up its season at the NESCAC Championships at Williams last weekend, returning to Bowdoin with seven new school records and a 10th place finish.
Bowdoin Brief: Students find sugar in salt shakers after Thorne mix-up
Last week, several students noticed that a few salt shakers in Thorne Dining Hall had been filled with sugar. According to Director of Dining and Bookstore Services Mary McAteer Kennedy, a student brought the mix-up to the attention of the Dining Service and the mistake was quickly rectified.
Men’s track takes third place, turns attention to state meet
After a strong showing at its Home Invitational last weekend, the men's track team is gearing up for a big meet this Saturday at Maine state meet.
E-Board opts for smaller winter concert bands
Pickard Theater will come alive tomorrow night as The Low Anthem and Jukebox the Ghost take the stage for the Entertainment Board's (E-Board) annual Winter Concert. Bowdoin's own Louis Weeks '11 will open for the two headliners, both of which are currently on tour.
Student Aid begins evaluating requests for Class of 2015
With only a week left before the anticipated release of Early Decision I (ED I) offers, the Office of Student Aid has begun evaluating financial aid requests for the incoming Class of 2015. For almost two decades, Bowdoin has adhered to a need-blind admissions practice. In January 2008, the College restructured its financial aid practices by replacing all loans with grants. Currently, the College is in the early stages of complying with the Higher Education Opportunity Act. The act includes a measure that aims to realistically inform prospective students of what their college costs might amount to.
Bowdoin Brief: College Prowler gives Bowdoin high marks
Two and a half years after Bowdoin was named College Prowler's "School of the Year," Bowdoin still holds the title. College Prowler recently updated its rankings for Bowdoin. The website determines rankings based on analysis of student survey responses, open-ended student reviews and statistical data. This means that the ratings can fluctuate as student reviewers post their comments.
SWAT begins redesign of Student Gateway, Digest to improve efficiency
This semester has already brought several overhauls in Bowdoin's technology infrastructure, the latest of which include a redesign of the Student Gateway. The Student Web Advisory Team (SWAT) is in the research and development phase of redesigning the Student Gateway Web page and the Student Digest.
New wireless network improves security, but not without flaws
Ever since Bowdoin upgraded its wireless network over Fall Break, many members of the community have expressed frustration as the College adjusts to the new system. To many on campus, the upgrade seemed arbitrary and unnecessarily disruptive. However, the new protocol—WPA2 Enterprise—was implemented after about a year of discussion and testing, according to Chief Information Officer Mitch Davis. The network is designed to close the security gaps of the old, open access system that allowed anyone to "get on the wireless network and 'click,' get your information," according to Davis.
Cram gives $13.5 million, largest posthumous gift
The recent bequest of $13.5 million—the largest ever posthumous gift to the College—from the estate of Bion Cram, a member of the Class of 1937, is sure to have a significant impact on Bowdoin's ability to maintain its financial aid program and need-blind admission practices.
Geoffrey Canada ’74 gains fame for HCZ
He has been interviewed on NBC Nightly News and the Tavis Smiley Show; he has been profiled as the ABC News "Person of the Week"; and, to put the seal on his recent explosion into the limelight, Geoffrey Canada '74 has been on "Oprah." Canada has been popping up all over the media to build enthusiasm for the already acclaimed documentary, "Waiting for Superman," of which he is a subject.
Colby establishes ban on hard alcohol
Students at Colby College have began their academic year in Waterville under a dry spell. Over the summer, Colby enacted a new policy—similar to those already in place at Bates and Bowdoin—banning hard alcohol.