Hobart and William Smith Colleges 150 Years of ΦBK

Donald Spector photo

By Sidhvi Reddy

As the last graduates of 2023 proudly turned their tassels left, many students will leave college exemplifying the highest values and standards of Phi Beta Kappa. One university in particular is dedicated to extending the opportunities and goals of Phi Beta Kappa to every student at the university. The Zeta of New York chapter at Hobart and William Smith Colleges has completed its 2023 inductions of Phi Beta Kappa graduates. One of the oldest ΦBK chapters in the country, it is led by President and Professor of Physics, Donald Spector. While the Zeta chapter celebrated its 150th anniversary during the pandemic, it continues to honor the successes and values of its students, particularly through support from the Dr. Arnold N. Cohen and Dr. Colleen R. Carey Endowed Phi Beta Kappa Fund given to honor the 150th anniversary in 2021.

Spector (pictured at right) reflected on the goals and values of Phi Beta Kappa, sharing some insights into the students and the endowment that serves to aid them in becoming a part of this prestigious honor. Four juniors and twenty three seniors were elected to join the society in 2023, and Spector noted that what made this cohort distinctive was the impact of the pandemic on their college experiences, particularly during their first year of college. He mentioned the drive and the affinity they had for learning, despite the circumstances, recounting memorable stories shared by various students. Though the stories are varied and diverse, ranging from classroom debates with professors, to sailing on the lake, and to creating a sense of camaraderie in an African diaspora class, Spector said that “they loved what being in college afforded them.” These students found joy and strove to make the most of their liberal arts education despite difficult times, further reinforcing their commitment to the ethos of ΦBK.

With the endowment graciously gifted by Cohen and his wife, Carey, the chapter is seeking to make connections with students at the university to help direct students to opportunities that may be available to them. In addition, the endowment provides membership funds to all future inductees of the chapter, alleviating any financial burdens for all students. It also covers the costs of the induction dinner that the college hosts annually to honor new members. Spector hopes the fund will help play a role in the future to foster inclusivity in ΦBK by educating more students about the Society and its ethos, spreading opportunities to students who may not know about it otherwise.

Today’s generation of graduates face new problems that previous generations have never faced. Graduation marks a time of joy and pride, but it also marks a period of uncertainty and new beginnings. Spector’s words of advice, not only for the Zeta chapter’s 2023 graduates, but for all graduates around the country, holds steadfast: “There’s a tendency to think you should be on a trajectory, and it’s not bad to be thinking about your future, but I also think life takes you in directions you don’t anticipate, and it’s good to be open to that.” At a time when graduates disperse into their own trajectories and paths, it’s easy to feel lost or confused. “[Everyone] has got a distinct mix of experiences, and that distinct mix of experiences will give you a perspective that others don’t have,” Spector said. “There will be times in your life . . . you don’t know when they will be or what they will be, but your particular distinctive set of experience will give you a way of thinking about something or approaching something that no one else would have.”

Though Phi Beta Kappa has existed since 1776, Spector reflected that our world is currently changing at a much quicker pace, which he described at length: “We are in a time of real upheaval and uncertainty. There are large political and economic uncertainties, environmental disruptions, and climate disruptions. With the emergence of AI, and the increasing algorithmic control of everything, I think there’s a fear of an unraveling.” Although today’s day and age pose immense questions for this generation’s graduates, holding steadfast to the values of education and free thinking will aid in the quest for solutions in the future. “It’s hard for any of us to know where that’s going to go,” Spector said. “The world is going to look very different five years from now in ways that we can’t expect, and the values of Phi Beta Kappa of supporting intellectual inquiry, will be an important value for facing all of these various challenges.”

In ending his advice to graduates for the future, Spector solidified the importance of intellectual inquiry as a value: “It’s hard for those values to stand up against the onslaught of everything else that’s happening in the world, but it’s also important that those values stay part of the conversation because without that intellectual grounding, it just becomes much hard to deal with these issues.”

Sidhvi Reddy is a first-year medical student at the University of Alabama at Birmingham Heersink School of Medicine. She graduated from the University of Oklahoma in May 2022 with a dual degree in microbiology and community health. The University of Oklahoma is home to the Alpha of Oklahoma chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.