Reflections after Eight Campus Visits as a ΦBK Visiting Scholar

By Amy Cheng Vollmer

Nothing could have surprised me more than the email I received in early June 2016 from Kathy Navascues at the Phi Beta Kappa national office. She asked me to accept ΦBK’s invitation to be a Visiting Scholar for 2017-2018. I was stunned, since my collegiate record at Rice University did not qualify me to be admitted to the ΦBK chapter there. Over the years, as a faculty member at Swarthmore College, I saw each year’s list of ΦBK members on the commencement program: they were extraordinary students!  I told Kathy that there must have been a mistake and that whoever nominated me did not know that I was not a member of ΦBK. Kathy assured me that there was no mistake. In February of 2017, after Kathy retired, Hadley White took over. She corresponded with me about possible travel dates and made arrangements for my eight campus visits. In a visit to the national office last fall, I mentioned that I still thought my nomination to be a Visiting Scholar might have been a mistake because I was not a member of ΦBK; she told me that many ΦBK Visiting Scholars are not! Thusly quieted was my case of ‘imposter syndrome’.

The eight campuses that I visited were as diverse as they were vibrant: in the fall, Elmira College, University of Maine, Randolph-Macon College, and Howard University; in the spring, Illinois College, Vanderbilt University, Butler University, and St. Mary’s College of Maryland. They differed in their size, geography, history, and missions. But they had much more in common. Whether they were public or private, strictly undergraduate or not, their ΦBK chapters served their institutions well. I was especially honored to attend two ΦBK induction ceremonies, at Howard and St. Mary’s. The campuses were lovely in their own ways, and I enjoyed exploring them on my own and also on guided tours. Each was in a beautiful setting, and much attention had been paid to preserving or incorporating nature into the campus design. 

The faculty and instructional staff who hosted my visits were gracious and thoughtful. Faculty were dedicated to their craft, enthusiastic about pedagogy as well as the advances in their fields of expertise. They were inspiring teachers and devoted mentors. At every campus, I was regaled with stories about historic events, accounts of contemporary activities, poignant tales about resilient students who had overcome great odds to succeed, funny anecdotes about campus traditions, and inspired descriptions of student projects. These stories showed a deep affection that the faculty have for their institutions and their students. They can all be rightfully proud of their traditions to which they continue to build. On my visit to University of Maine, I met a former student who is thriving as a faculty member; during my visit to Butler University, I had a mini-reunion with the biology department, for which I served as an external reviewer nine years ago; at St. Mary’s College, I saw a colleague whom I have known for many years and was reacquainted with another I’d met years ago at Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Proof again, that academia is indeed a very small world!

The highlight of each of my visits was the students. I met mostly with undergraduate students, but also had some terrific conversations with graduate students at some campuses. Students were bright, spirited, and inquisitive. Some lingered after one of my 28 lectures, others followed up with email messages, several joined me for meals or accompanied me on campus walks. We spoke about the importance of mentoring and networking, two essential professional lifelines. While many of my colleagues imagine that I might be exhausted after eight visits in six months, I am happy to report that I feel energized! Despite the many challenges that we face in higher education, and the lack of civility that characterizes much of the current public discourse, interacting with the students on my visits has made me more optimistic than ever about our future.  

I appreciate the attention given by ΦBK’s national office to all of my travel logistics and by local campus chapters for the care with which each visit’s itinerary was planned.  Serving as a ΦBK Visiting Scholar has been one of the highest honors of my career. I intend to stay in touch with colleagues whom I met this year and have returned to my regular activities at Swarthmore ever more invigorated and inspired. Many thanks to the anonymous nominator and the entire nominating committee for this privilege. I am deeply grateful to ΦBK for this unique opportunity to travel and speak at so many campuses at which I thoroughly enjoyed both the intellectual and social interactions!  

Amy Cheng Vollmer is the Isaac H. Clothier, Jr. Professor of Biology and Director of the Swarthmore Summer Scholars Program at Swarthmore College. Vollmer served as a ΦBK Visiting Scholar during the 2017-2018 academic year.