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Then and now: Why so many Brandeis alumni keep coming back for more

Published: October 17, 2008
Section: Features

Most students can’t wait to get out of school, but that’s not the case for the 164 odd Brandeis alumni who now work on the very campus where they once resided.

In true Brandeis alumnus fashion, Tom Friedman ’75 returned to his alma mater Thursday to give a speech about his book “Hot, Flat and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution-and How It Can Renew America.” A member of the Brandeis Board of Trustees over the years, Friedman exemplifies the fierce loyalty to Brandeis that so many alumni possess, according to President Jehuda Reinharz. Tom Friedman “is one of those special alums who not only loves what Brandeis stands for, but what we’re becoming,” he said.

In a practice that resembles that of schools such as Harvard, Yale and Princeton, Brandeis continues to hire many of their own former students as staff and faculty members. While the high numbers of alumni working at Harvard have decreased steadily over the years, starting with a trend in the 1960s, Brandeis’ clan continues to grow. So why is it that so many alumni just can’t get enough of Brandeis?

While there’s no way of truly quantifying why it is that Brandeis alumni keep coming back for more, if you ask the following alumni, there’s no denying that there’s something special about Brandeis. Some faculty members were hired right after getting their Brandeis degree; some left the Deis to go on to other schools and still came back for more.

The same goes for staff members. Some staff members have known nothing but Brandeis in their professional lives and some have worked at other schools yet still find that nothing else compares to the place they once called home. Applying your experience as an alumni comes into play most every day for many of these alumni. Sarah Ehrich ’05, an Admissions counselor,

is able to apply her love for her alma mater to her job, a practice which “lends validity to what you’re talking about.”

Senior Vice President of Institutional Advancement Nancy Winship’s Development department has 21 alumni working for her. As Winship said, “alumni have a very special kind of loyalty to the institution.”

Of course, there are certainly differences in the transition from student to employee based on when individual employees returned to Brandeis. And the motivations for returning to Brandeis are many and the experiences varied, but one thing remains true–Brandeis is still their home.

And who says you can’t go home?

Benjamin Ravid ’57

Major: History

Professor of: Near Eastern and Judaic Studies

You could say Brandeis is in Benjamin Ravid’s blood. The Brandeis alumnus’ father, Simon Rawidowicz, was one of the founders of the very department in which he has worked for 35 years.

Brandeis’ small liberal arts atmosphere, not to mention the tuition benefits that came with having a father as a faculty member, instantly appealed to Ravid. After completing his undergraduate history degree, Ravid went on to receive his M.A. and PhD in history at Harvard University. From Harvard, he traveled to Montreal, Canada to teach at McGill University. Yet 16 years later, he found himself back at Brandeis, this time as a NEJS professor.

For Ravid, the biggest difference in coming back to Brandeis was teaching in a department that hadn’t been his area of study. When he returned, Ravid found that none of the current NEJS professors had taught here during his undergraduate years, ewhich made the transition from student to professor easier for him.

Ravid, who specializes in the history of early modern Venice, has stayed here since and plans to retire at the end of the fall ’09 semester. Had another job offer come along offering him the chance to teach this very specific period of history elsewhere, there’s no telling, Ravid said, whether or not he might have taken it. But that’s just about all that would’ve convinced this alumnus to leave Brandeis. “I enjoyed being here; I enjoyed being rooted in the Boston area,” he said. “I liked it here and I saw no reason to look for a change.”

Stephen J. Whitfield ’72

PhD in: History

Professor of: American Studies

When Stephen Whitfield started at Brandeis University in the fall of 1969 as a PhD candidate in history, he came for three reasons: an intellectual interest in the intersection of the histories of civil liberties and political activism; an excitement to work with a renowned group of faculty members and a generous fellowship Brandeis had offered him.

When Brandeis employee Lawrence Fuchs was hiring a new American Studies Professor in 1972, he too was interested in three things: someone with an American Studies degree; someone who and preferably someone who was female.

Whitfield was none of those, but he was hired all the same.

“That was a matter of luck that revealed something about the way Brandeis operated,” Whitfield mused.

Three months after earning his PhD from Brandeis in 1972, Whitfield was offered a job as a professor of American Studies, the department he now heads as the Max Richter Chair in American Civilization.

“Brandeis was an open, free-floating, flexible institution” and hired someone who had never touched an American Studies syllabi, had never attended an American Studies lecture, or taken an American Studies exam, Whitfield said.

Being hired three months after earning his PhD here made the transition from student to professor that much easier for him. Whitfield believes teaching at the same university he once attended affords him “a sense of continuity that enables me sometimes to connect the Brandeis past that I’ve either experienced or known about with something that is current.” And possessing both historical knowledge of and personal experience at Brandeis helps Whitfield to reinforce the very lessons he teaches to his students.

Meaningful interactions with fellow colleagues—both fellow departmental faculty members and a welcoming administrative staff– has played a big role in keeping Brandeis so attractive in Whitfield’s mind.

But then, don’t forget the very students Whitfield teaches, as they are a large factor in Brandeis appeal, he said. Brandeis is “lovable because primarily the students who are great people to know and to teach, very engaging, often very intelligent, very likable and give me the impression that they’re committed to learning.”

Though there have been various times when Whitfield could have chosen to leave Brandeis, such was never the case in his mind, he said. “The choice has always been clear, and the answer has always been easy; for me there’s never been a more attractive place to be than Brandeis.”

Karen Engelbourg ’79

Major: History

Current Position: Assistant Vice President of Alumni and University Relations

Talk about hometown pride. When Assistant Vice President of Alumni and University Relations Karen Engelbourg ’79 meets with alumni and prospective donors, its’ not just any old school she’s presenting or asking them to donate to, it’s her home of sorts.

Instead of rolling off statistics about Brandeis’ alumni, Engelbourg is more likely to engage alumni in small talk about which residence hall they lived in as first-year students, or what their favorite Brandeis landmark was. “It’s easier for me to connect with [alumni]… because we share a common home; Brandeis is our common home and so we always have something to talk about,” she said.

While at Brandeis as an undergrad, Engelbourg wasn’t quite sure of which career she wanted to pursue, and looking back now, she never imagined she’d be back here at her alma mater after all this time. And yet she’s kept coming back over the years.

Engelbourg, whose husband is also a Brandeis alumnus, first worked at Tufts University and MIT before returning to Brandeis as an employee in the mid 80’s. She then left Brandeis to work at Children’s Hospital before coming back to work in the Alumni Relations office.

Working with alumni as an alumna herself gives Engelbourg a unique perspective, she said. “I can give our Alumni and Development program a perspective on what alumni can contribute to the university and how the university can enhance its relationship and communication with alumni.”

If you ask Engelbourg, the numbers speak for themselves, and reveal something special about Brandeis. “I think it speaks so highly to the university that so many Brandeis alumni come back to work at the university. It’s really a special place and with so many other options for employees, you know people vote with their feet and it really speaks very well to the university that it’s the kind of community that people want to engage in long after they’ve graduated.”

Jehuda Reinharz ’72

PhD in: History

Current Position: President

Brandeis’ very own president is an alumnus of the university, having earned his PhD in modern Jewish history in 1972.

As is the case with all alumni in general, Brandeis staff and faculty members who have attended the university offer something unique to the job, Reinharz said. “You have a special loyalty to the institution, you have a special feeling for the history, for the missions; you know its vision for the future in a way that others might acquire over time but that’s sort of been engrained in you by having studied here for a number of years.”

When asked to consider returning to Brandeis as a professor, the choice was an easy one, Reinharz said. “For a faculty member in my field, there was no better place to be than Brandeis,” he said, citing the Near Eastern and Judaic Studies (NEJS) department that he views as high caliber. Combine that with his wife Shulamit Reinharz, a Brandeis alumna, being offered a professor position in Brandeis’ sociology department, and the choice was clear.

Michael Swartz ’71

Current Position: Associate Vice President for Gift Planning

You could say Associate Vice President for Gift Planning Michael Swartz ‘71 is keeping the Brandeis tradition in the family. Once a Brandeis undergraduate, Swartz has a daughter who recently graduated from Brandeis in 2008 and also a cousin who attended the university.

Swartz believes that so many people come back to Brandeis because they identify with any one of its four pillars and its commitment to social justice. And even though there was a 16 year gap between his graduating Brandeis and becoming an employee, Swartz still draws upon his experience as a Brandeis student to inform his daily interactions with potential donors.

Swartz is certainly paying it forward. He first came to Brandeis in part because of its strong academic reputation and also because of a generous financial aid package the university offered him. Having been the beneficiary of other donor’s generosity “allows me to speak with some passion about the importance of current donors making scholarship funds available to students who wouldn’t otherwise be able to be here,” he said.

To this end, Swartz cited the benefits of being a Brandeis alumnus when speaking with a potential donor. He also stressed the gratifying nature of his position. “For me it’s tremendously rewarding to be here professionally after being here as a student for four years.”