Alumni Column: Colgate, Then and Now



Pat Apelian Aitken

I recently had a meeting with a high school senior to talk about Colgate and to help her make an informed decision in her college search. Colgate’s Early Decision I deadline is looming this week and I know that a personal discussion can be one of the most influential elements in the college search process for high school seniors. As I collected my thoughts on how to best engage this student about the ways that Colgate might be a good fit for her personal interests, my thoughts inevitably turned to that age old question: “Why Colgate?”

It is easy to believe that Colgate today is a different place than when I first stepped onto campus with my worldly belongings in September 1972 – including the fact that we were among the earliest first  year co-eds, while today the number of female students outnumber males. Yet, remarkably, Colgate’s key strengths are fundamentally the same today as during my undergraduate years, and so I find it very easy to talk about why students continue to be drawn to Colgate.

Anyone who is reading this will surely know the typical answers to “Why Colgate?” Yes, we all believe in the importance of a liberal arts foundation and how the Core Curriculum shapes and molds Colgate’s unique approach to a liberal arts education. Whether the requirement was to study P&R (Philosophy & Religion) as I did, or Legacies of the Ancient World as today’s students do now, both essentially teach intellectual reflection and expression in a multi-disciplinary context. Yes, athletics remain an important extracurricular activity, whether providing opportunities for student-athletes through Colgate’s range of Division I interscholastic sports, offering essential spectator forums for nurturing school spirit as we cheer on our classmates or through healthy intramural sports competition. Yes, the long-standing tradition and wealth of off-campus study options ensure that Colgate students learn about life in the real world outside of the bubble that is Hamilton and teach us to maintain an open and global perspective.

These reasons are the typical answers that address the formative aspects of an undergraduate education because they are somewhat more tangible and easier to identify and describe. What I didn’t know back then – and as a young student perhaps couldn’t begin to appreciate – were the intangibles that are the basis of Colgate’s unique connections and community. What I didn’t know back then was what it would mean to be part of the Colgate family, to bleed maroon and to be part of an alumni network where I continue to meet interesting and wonderful people who are always willing and available to help a fellow Colgate alum. What I didn’t know back then was that my roommates and I would truly form the closest, most special friendships that would last a lifetime. What I didn’t know back then was how Colgate would indeed mold my thinking, expand my approaches to problems-solving and enable me to successfully address challenges from a multi-disciplinary perspective that only a Colgate liberal arts education can foster.

My paths to and through Colgate were not easy. My four grandparents were immigrants who did not know how to read or write English, and neither of my parents had been able to attend college. Like many of today’s Colgate students, I needed a significant amount of financial aid, scholarships, student loans and summer jobs to supplement my family’s financial limitations. It was well worth the effort.

How could I have known that my Colgate liberal arts education, my time student teaching in Earlville and Norwich, my experiences on Colgate’s earliest women’s interscholastic teams and as an intramural athlete, or the perspective I gained on my semester in France on the Dijon Study Group would all combine to provide connections, create opportunities, open doors and mold me into the adult that I am today? So, in speaking with young adults today and asking, “Why Colgate?” the answer is simple: what I couldn’t begin to appreciate then, but certainly know now, is the positive impact Colgate had on me. Colgate, then and now, has the capacity to truly changes lives for the better.