Commencement Profiles

Each member of the Class of 2011 has a Williams story. Different circumstances and perspectives brought them to Williams, different experiences shaped their time here, and different dreams will take them in many directions after graduation. To celebrate their commencement, we offer here a collection of some of the individual stories from the extraordinary men and women of the Class of 2011.

Stephanie Berger and Rhassan Hill: Serving their Country
As their classmates head to internships, training programs, graduate school, and other first stops after graduation, Rhassan Hill and Stephanie Berger are headed into the armed forces.

Stephanie Berger
Stephanie Berger (photo by Stephanie Owyang '13)

Berger will attend Officer Candidate School in Newport, R.I., through the Navy’s Baccalaureate Degree Commissioning Program. When she graduates from OCS, she’ll enter service as a surface warfare officer. (“In layman’s terms, it means I will be driving battleships.”)

Berger’s a political science major with a concentration in leadership studies. “I’m sure that if/when I conduct my first anti-piracy mission, I’ll remember the first lecture I heard on the topic from Prof. McAllister in his America and the World After September 11 class,” she says.

At Williams, which does not have its own ROTC program, Berger says her friends have strongly supported her chosen career path. “When I swore into the Navy, they bought me a life preserver that they all signed with congratulatory messages.”

Rhassan Hill
Rhassan Hill (photo by Stephanie Owyang '13)

Hill will enter the U.S. Army as a second lieutenant and plans to attend business school after completing his four-year commitment. Coming to Williams from an urban public high school, he says he lacked the preparation for an environment as rigorous as Williams and struggled initially. Over the last two years, this history major has improved his grades significantly while finding time to travel and study in South Africa, Nicaragua, Canada, and Vietnam.

Hill originally signed up for military service mainly as a way to pay for graduate school, but he has come to see the armed forces as a foundation for a successful business career. Hill says military service “offers a level of responsibility, engagement, and discipline difficult to obtain elsewhere, particularly in a recession as deep as the one we’re currently in.”

A 2008 presentation by Williams alumni serving in Iraq can be viewed here.

Hannah Cunningham: An Anthropological Approach to Medicine
Inspired by her mother, a pediatric infectious disease specialist, and her aunt, a Peace Corps worker, sociology major Hannah Cunningham took a leave of absence from Williams in 2007 to spend six months in Masaka working with the Uganda Rural Fund.

Hannah Cunningham
Hannah Cunningham

There she organized a women’s domestic violence prevention project, taught English and computer skills, and helped build a school and orphanage. She then relocated to Kampala, where she worked for two HIV clinics—one treatment based and the other research based—before returning to college.

“It was my time in Uganda that really gave my goals focus and direction,” says Cunningham, who’s also completing premedical requirements.

This fall, thanks to a $30,000 scholarship she received from the St. Andrew’s Society of the State of New York, Cunningham plans to pursue a master’s in global health and anthropology at the University of Edinburgh’s School of Social and Political Science. Later, she expects to attend medical school and work internationally.

“A natural fieldworker, she does not enjoy theory for theory’s sake but is capable of precise and effective applications of theory to empirical data,” says sociology professor Olga Shevchenko. “Her chosen path is medicine, but she approaches it with an anthropologist’s sensibility and an interest in people’s lived experience and social worlds.”

Cunningham also spent a summer conducting research on the H1N1 virus with the Duke University Department of Infectious Disease. Her collaborative research has been published in the Journal of Clinical Virology, accepted for publication to the Journal of American College Health, and presented at two conferences on infectious disease and antimicrobial agents.

Cunningham was a Williams Class of 1960 Scholar in molecular biology, participating in extracurricular lectures and discussions with prominent molecular biologists and biochemists; a Class of 1957 Research Fellow, working with anthropology professor Peter Just to develop the syllabus for a course on masculinity; and a recipient of a Williams Gaudino Scholarship for independent anthropological research on female genital modification among the Buganda Tribe in Uganda.

Beryl Manning-Geist: Found at Sea
An Idaho native who came to the Berkshires for college, Beryl Manning-Geist might seem an unlikely coral reef researcher. But then, geographical limitations being what they are, she might also seem an unlikely surfer or scuba diver, labels she wears proudly.

Beryl Manning-Geist
Beryl Manning-Geist

Manning-Geist fell in love with the sea as a child, accompanying her professor father (he’s a faculty member at the University of Idaho) on research trips to the Galapagos Islands and elsewhere, and by 14 she was surfing in Maui. She came to Williams to study science—specifically, biology, after being inspired by one particularly influential high school biology teacher. And she knew that at Williams she would have the opportunity to work closely with faculty members.

“I came to a small liberal arts college because I wanted to do research,” she says.

At Williams, she saw classmates getting amazing internships and alumni going on to what seemed like impossibly cool careers. Then, she says, “It hit me: Those are real jobs, those are things that real people do, and if you work hard enough, you can find a way to do them.”

So began a journey that would take Manning-Geist on research trips back to the Galapagos, where she spent a summer at the Charles Darwin Research Station; to continental Ecuador, where she helped establish a marine reserve and taught local residents how to engage in sustainable tourism; and to Australia, where she researched policy implications of the effects of sugar-cane farming on the Great Barrier Reef. She took a tutorial on coral reefs with geosciences professor Ronadh Cox—“by far the most rewarding academic experience I’ve had,” says Manning-Geist. And she spent the spring of her sophomore year in the interdisciplinary Williams-Mystic maritime studies program, soaking up the history, literature, policy, and science of the sea. The nature of that program—“a liberal arts approach to the ocean,” Manning-Geist says, is one she has adopted while at Williams.

Indeed, her own approach to research has been enormously varied. Her senior thesis, with biology professor and department chair Steven Swoap, compares the physiological effects of caloric restriction and the immunosuppressant rapamycin to determine if the two treatments increase life span in mice through similar mechanisms. Swoap is hopeful that the research will be published soon. Already, Manning-Geist has received national attention for it, winning a 2011 David S. Bruce Excellence in Undergraduate Research Award from the American Physiological Society at its annual meeting in April.

After graduation, Manning-Geist will spend the summer at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, working on two clinical trials (one on heart transplants and another on renal failure). And she’s a finalist for a Fulbright scholarship that would allow her to study the sustainability of the reef system of Coiba National Park in Panama. So maybe she’ll have to choose between clinical research and coral reefs. Or maybe she’ll find a way to do it all.



Janna Gordon: A New Outlook on Health
In March 2010, Janna Gordon was a happy, healthy Williams junior who was trying to finish her mid-term exams so she could head to New Orleans and build houses over spring break with a service group.  But she became extremely ill and was rushed to the hospital with trouble breathing and extreme weakness. She spent her spring break at home, visiting doctors, none of whom could conclusively diagnose her illness.

Janna Gordon
Janna Gordon

Eventually, she was diagnosed with mononucleosis. “I actually remember being really excited about that, because I figured I would get better soon and everything would be fine,” she says. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. Although she considered leaving Williams to recuperate, she was a Junior Advisor and didn’t want to leave the first-year students she lived with and was responsible for in the freshman dorm. Whenever she wasn’t struggling to sit up in class, she was lying motionless in bed.

She did make it back to campus as a senior in the fall but by winter break she started having symptoms again. After more doctors’ appointments, it was determined that she had developed food sensitivities from the viral infection. So, in the last few months she has had to overhaul her diet.

Now recovered, Gordon has a new appreciation for health, and the experience has shaped her academic and career interests. She is now interested in behavioral medicine, an interdisciplinary field that, among other things, provides mental health support for individuals with chronic or terminal illnesses or disabilities.

After graduation, she’ll be serving as a research assistant at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, where she’ll be working on a study using cognitive behavioral therapy to treat depression among people with HIV. She thinks she would like to be a clinical psychologist, specializing in health psychology, so she can provide support for individuals with illness.

Yue-Yi Hwa: On Her Way to Changing Education in Malaysia
Growing up in a lower-middle class family in Malaysia, Yue-Yi Hwa says the one “luxury” her parents spent money on was books. Education was paramount, so it’s not surprising that her senior honors thesis at Williams focused on a policy in her homeland requiring schoolchildren to learn science and mathematics in English.

Yue-Yi Hwa
Yue-Yi Hwa

The policy, though short-lived, sent shock waves through Malaysia’s public school system, where instruction took place in one of the three major local languages. It also cast a spotlight on the political, economic, and social concerns facing Malaysia, something Hwa’s thesis explored in great detail.

“Yue-Yi’s thesis is the best political economy thesis I’ve ever seen,” says economics professor Lara Shore-Sheppard, one of Hwa’s two thesis advisers. “[It] was impressive in its breadth and depth … and she investigated every aspect of it … from all angles.

“She was incredibly self-motivated,” Shore-Sheppard adds. “She’s a natural born researcher.”

For Hwa, a political science and Arabic studies double major, the thesis is a first step toward her goal of returning to Malaysia to immerse herself in education policy. Whether it’s as a journalist, policy analyst, or researcher, she is committed to serving her country.

While at Williams, Hwa has served as editor-in-chief of The Williams Record, founded The Williams Telos (a journal of Christian discourse), volunteered at shelters for homeless and at-risk youth in Springfield, Mass., and built Habitat for Humanity houses in New Orleans.

She’s won several fellowships and scholarships, including a Williams Donovan-Moody Fellowship for two years of graduate study at the University of Oxford, where she plans to pursue a degree in politics. “I’m excited to be in England,” she says, “because much of my country’s history is in London.”

Mohammed Lotif: Giving Voice to the Folk Singers of Bangladesh
Mohammed “Mo” Lotif  was having dinner with some fellow American studies majors when someone posed the question: “What would you do this summer if you could do anything at all?”

Without hesitation, Lotif, a junior at the time, said he’d travel to Bangladesh to study rickshaw drivers.

Mohammed "Mo" Lotif
Mohammed "Mo" Lotif (photo by Mark McCarty)

Lotif was 2 years old when his family immigrated to the U.S. from rural Bangladesh, where his father drove a bus. Growing up in New York City and Detroit, Lotif absorbed mainstream American pop culture, but he remained curious about the country of his birth.

“I wanted to get a better understanding of what the rickshaw drivers have to endure, how they understood the nation, their lives, themselves,” he says. “I wanted to be a voice for these individuals in the lower rungs of society, who are so integral to that society—yet invisible and inaudible.”

With the help of a Mary and Nathaniel M. Lawrence Travel Fellowship, available only to Williams students, Lotif spent the summer before his senior year in Bangladesh, working on “The Rickshaw Diaries.”

“My whole thing was to befriend these individuals, to do away with the lens of elitism or class,” he says of the experience, which he documented in photographs, poems, drawings, and a journal. From his conversations with rickshaw drivers, slum landlords, and rural residents, he began to understand the political economy of rickshaw driving and developed a critique of the micro-credit loan system.

Lotif then spent Winter Study of his senior year in Bangladesh, this time to study Baul music, Bengali folk music, in the rural communities of Sylhet. He plans to return there after graduation to continue his studies and become a folk musician himself.

Lotif is a founder of Williams’ first spoken-word poetry group and is a leader of Bridges, a first-year orientation program concerning issues of diversity and identity.

Alexa Lutchen: Music Lessons and Mentoring Foreshadow a Career in Public Service
As a first-year student, economics major Alexa Lutchen had an idea to pair up Williams College music students with Williamstown Elementary School students for free,

Alexa Lutchen
Alexa Lutchen

guided music practice sessions. Thus began the Music Mentoring Program at Williams, which Lutchen has run ever since. As a sophomore, Lutchen expanded the program when she learned that Hancock Elementary School did not have an in-school instrumental music program. She drove herself and fellow students Christine Hulsizer ’13, Aspen Jordan ’11, and Olivia Uhlman’13 to Hancock once a week to offer free lessons on school-owned instruments to any student who wanted to stay and practice.

“The most rewarding part of this program has been the relationships developed between the student and the mentor,” she says. And for the students, “Having a positive role model is invaluable,” she adds.

It is this belief that has driven Lutchen to encourage other Williams students to act as mentors, and for Lutchen to develop a second mentoring project:  the Learning Intervention for Troubled Teens Program (LIFTT). LIFTT is an alternative sentencing program that matches Williams students and North Adams youth involved in the court system in an attempt to provide positive role models and beneficial learning experiences for the teens.

Lutchen plans to pursue public service, attending Yale Law School in the fall.

Lorenzo Patrick : A Passion for Play-By-Play
As a 17-year-old in suburban Chicago, Lorenzo Patrick had four years of competitive public speaking under his belt at Walther Lutheran High School, some good experiences with football and track and field, and a stellar GPA. He knew he wanted to be a sports broadcaster, but he wasn’t sure whether he wanted to focus solely on journalism in college or branch out academically.

Lorenzo Patrick
Lorenzo Patrick

“I made what I thought was the surest choice: Williams College,” says Patrick. “Williams offered the academic variety I wanted should I eventually lose interest in sports journalism, and at Williams I could study religion, philosophy, or English. Most students change their majors at least once during college. Why would I be any different?” (He ended up sticking with philosophy.)

As a freshman, he began working in sports information, doing play-by-play of football games.  “The first game was difficult, to say the least,” he remembers. “I stumbled verbally many times. I couldn’t control how loud my voice sounded, and my broadcast partner, who I had hoped to glean some knowledge from, failed to show. To top it all off, the team had lost to start the season.”

He improved quickly and steadily, though, and after broadcasting more than 150 live sports events, Patrick this year became the first Williams student to win both of the college’s sports broadcasting awards, the Frank Deford Award and the Aaron Pinsky ’06 Sports Broadcasting Award. Dick Quinn, Williams’ sports information director, says Patrick has what it takes to be successful as a professional broadcaster.

After an internship with the North Adams Steeplecats (part of the New England Collegiate Baseball League) and a Winter Study experience with NBC Sports, Patrick’s first post-graduation stop on his sports journalism will be at KGOW in Houston, the flagship station of Sporting News Radio.

Clint Robins: Choosing Wisely
Football brought Clint Robins to Williams, but it’s biology that he knows will take him far.

That’s why the Wisconsin native made the unusual and difficult decision early in his junior year to give up football, freeing him up to focus more intensely on his birdsong research with biology professor Heather Williams.

“In hindsight, it was a decision I was going to have to make that I just didn’t know I would have to make,” says Robins.

Clint Robins
Clint Robins (photo by Mark McCarty)

Recruited as a wide receiver, Robins chose Williams College over others, including some in the Ivy League, because of the strengths of the academic and athletic programs here and the encouragement he says he got from the coaching staff to have a life outside of football. “They were very supportive of my interest in studying abroad, and they said, ‘Oh, and you know you can do two sports if you want, too.’” That was different than at some other colleges, he says, where he would have been expected to focus almost exclusively on football.

In his sophomore year, he began working with Williams to study populations of Savannah sparrows, examining differences in males’ songs, which play a prominent role in mate selection, and attempting to understand what accounts for the differences from one population to the next. (Robins had long been interested in studying animals and, in particular, animal interaction and communication. The simple chance to do fieldwork outside in the summer—there’s a population of Savannah sparrows nearby—was one early draw to working with Professor Williams, a faculty member since 1988.)

Robins won a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship—designed to increase the number of students from underrepresented minority groups who pursue graduate study—and saw his research intensify over the summer and early into his junior year. Meanwhile, he had a full course load, and his commitments to football had ramped up unexpectedly when the coach asked him to fill a need by switching from receiver to running back. That meant learning a new position, changing his playing style, “putting on 20 pounds and not losing any speed,” and “getting hit a lot by bigger guys,” Robins says.

He did it, but all the commitments began to take a toll; he was tired all the time and stressed, spread too thin. “It wasn’t that I couldn’t do it all, but I couldn’t get it all done to my satisfaction,” he says.

In a heart-to-heart talk, Robins’ coach told him “’football isn’t something you’re going to do for the rest of your life,’” Robins remembers, and urged him to stick with research and be happy. Professor Williams, his research mentor, offered to help him balance football and research, understanding the special nature of the camaraderie and competition of college sports.

Robins chose research, making room for someone else on the team roster before the first game of the season. And he studied abroad in Australia in the spring, learning rugby for fun and gaining perspective on his decision. He returned to Williamstown for his senior year comfortable in his new identity and grateful he chose the college he did.

“We’re all about experiencing everything at Williams,” he says. “Williams allows you to become the person you want to be.”

Oliver Wunsch: Curator, Blogger, Critic
Oliver Wunsch has distinguished himself in many ways in his two years as a student in Williams’ Graduate Program in the History of Art.

Oliver Wunsch
Oliver Wunsch

Beyond his advanced art historical work in 18th-century French art, he co-curated an exhibition currently on view at MASS MoCA—an exhibition conceived and organized by students from the ground up. Memery: Imitation, Memory, and Internet Culture, on view through July 31, is loosely formed around the relationship between the Internet and memory.

Before embarking on his master’s degree at Williams, which has only two graduate programs (art history and development economics),  Wunsch studied painting and printmaking at Haverford College in Pennsylvania. He was working as an arts administrator in Philadelphia while continuing to work on collaborative art projects (including the Temporary Department for Academic Research and the Philadelphia Institute for Advanced Study) when he decided to apply to graduate school.

Wunsch has also written for the blog of the PBS series Art:21 and worked on a column about graduate education in art and art history. The posts generally focus on questions of art and pedagogy. You can see some of his posts here.

Beginning next fall, he’ll be pursuing a doctorate in 18th century art at Harvard.