When The Student Becomes the Teacher
One writer takes a look at those who have gotten the chance to experience Dartmouth from multiple perspectives: as both students and teachers.
This article is featured in the 2022 Homecoming special issue.
We’ve all had that thought. For me, it usually happens when I’m walking to class and I see too many people I know. Light smiles and waves are dealt out to about five friends of a friend, the girl I sit next to in class, some of my fellow Mirror writers (hey, guys) and probably two to three of my floormates from last year — the usual suspects. When I pass by all these people, one thought runs through my mind — where are they all going to be in twenty years? For Homecoming, a time when alumni make their way back to Hanover, I wanted to celebrate by talking to the people who couldn’t resist Dartmouth, even after graduation: those who came back to the Big Green as professors and lecturers.
Within the woods of the Big Green, each had a very different, yet nonetheless transformative, experience.
“[My time at Dartmouth] definitely changed me as a person,” public policy professor Charles Wheelan ’88 said. “I came here as someone who had rebelled against the conformity of the suburbs of where I grew up, and this was where I found my intellectual legs.”
Although Wheelan is now a renowned author, senior lecturer and policy fellow at Dartmouth, he said that he wasn’t the most diligent student during his time in college. He even described himself as “as lazy as he could get away with.”
Wheelan also talked at length about his time spent abroad, which he felt was one of the most important facets of his Dartmouth career.
“I blossomed here,” he said. “I came here in part because I wanted to do a lot of foreign study programs, and I did just that. I went to France, I worked in England and I worked in Kuwait. So [Dartmouth] did what I hoped it would do, and then it did a lot more.”
On the more academic side of Dartmouth, religion professor Susan Ackerman ’80 said she felt that the classes here shaped her into the professor she would later become — without her even knowing it.
“I was a total nerd,” she said. “I spent a lot of time in the library, and I worked really hard in my classes. I was very academically motivated and driven. When I went to Dartmouth, there was not an overwhelming amount of extracurriculars, so I threw myself into my studies.”
Ackerman, who enrolled just four years after the first class of women matriculated through the College, added that the Dartmouth she attended looked very different from the one she teaches at today.
“There were 250 women per class and 750 men,” she explained. “This created a social environment that was dramatically skewed in terms of gender balance.”
Ackerman even shared that during Homecoming week and Winter Carnival, women from other New England colleges used to be bussed up to Dartmouth to balance this disparity. Thank God the Dartmouth we know now is nearly a 50/50 gender split.
And who could forget about the student-athletes? Although he spent time buzzing in and out of the Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and between various humanities classes, engineering lecturer Lee Cooper ’09 attributed many of his present-day capabilities to his experiences on the rugby pitch.
“That’s where I learned a lot of real world skills I use today: being a part of a team, learning leadership and building a culture,” he said. “I’m also still very close with many of my teammates and my former coach.”
In college, Cooper studied religion and public policy, but he now lectures at the Thayer School of Engineering, a building he said he “maybe set foot in two or three times” during his undergraduate years. Cooper credits this academic leap to Dartmouth’s liberal arts curriculum.
“[Religion] was interdisciplinary in and of itself, which is what drew me to it,” he said. “That’s what drew me to all my studies at Dartmouth, actually, and it’s what I try to focus on now as a teacher…For a long time, that’s been Dartmouth’s strength and I hope it continues to be.”
Ackerman also attributed her current teaching position to Dartmouth’s encouragement of diverse studies. After an unsatisfactory stint as a potential math major, Ackerman decided to take a course in something she knew nothing about — religion, the subject she teaches today.
“Like many students, I didn’t end up majoring in what I thought I was going to study,” she said. “I took Religion 1 because my first-year advisor told me that since I was at a liberal arts school I should explore and take a course in something which you have yet to study, so I did.”
Some even teach the same classes now that they took in their time at Dartmouth, such as Wheelan and EDUC 20, “Educational Issues Contemporary Society.” Reflecting on being both a past student and current teacher, Wheelan remarked how he can see his freshman dorm from his office window. I get nostalgic passing my freshman dorm even as a sophomore, so Wheelan’s experience seems incredibly surreal.
On the other side of the looking glass, Cooper said that current students should take classes that actually interest them, even if they aren’t for their major. As a former religion and public policy student turned biotech investor and engineer lecturer, he is certainly living proof of his own advice.
“These classes should inspire you to learn for the sake of learning outside of your bubble, because you never know which classes are going to be the ones you look back to,” Cooper said.
Wheelan added that Dartmouth acts as a unique place of knowledge gathering that doesn’t exist elsewhere. “Once you get out in the world, you just don’t have these opportunities to mingle with all the different kinds of students, all the different faculties across so many departments,” he said.
So, carpe diem, Dartmouth. No one knows where we’ll be in twenty years. All that’s certain is now, so take advantage of it. Go to France or England or Kuwait, and then maybe come back to Hanover. Study what you want, and then study some more. Spend less time thinking about others, and more time thinking about what you want to do with the time you have left here. Oh, and also, be kind to each other — you never know who might end up teaching your kids if they follow in your footsteps.