On fire

The actual “fire” in “fireside dinners” went out a while ago. We stopped putting a match to some logs and kindling on these evenings back in 2005, I think it was, when a faulty fireplace flue caused the President’s House to fill up with smoke, and we all had to assemble outside in the yard for a few minutes until the smoke cleared and we figured out how to turn the alarm off. I admit, the smoke did lend a certain excitement. And I’m still not sure if the menu for the night was supposed to include “smoked short ribs.” But that’s how it turned out—pretty good, too.

Real fire or not, there are always fireworks for Mary and me on these evenings when we gather the first 16 energetic students who sign up to join us for a night of good food and smart conversation in the formal dining room of the Prez Rez (18 is the max we can squeeze around our table, and even then the chairs are packed so tight we have to sit and stand with Rubik’s Cube precision). Mary and I love these nights. As former college professors, we miss spending time around a table—seminar or dining—mixing it up with a group of bright young people on a subject that’s important and interesting and provocative. The students are our fix. They keep us going, charge our batteries, spark the fire in our bellies.

Early in September we hosted the first “fireside” of this academic year. The combined logic of email and in-person sign-up at the President’s Office (half of the guests from each) once again brought in a completely unique and yet typically fantastic mix of students—seven seniors, four juniors, four sophomores, and one lonely (and very gregarious) freshman. I understand we broke a record this time, filling the 16 available seats and the wait-list in 19 seconds after the email announcement went out the week before. Amazes me every time. But what really amazes me? Those students.

The topic for the evening was “change.” I reminded our guests at the start of the evening that Puget Sound had recently been honored as one of only 40 colleges in the nation to be included in Colleges That Change Lives. [See story, page 12.] I asked the students to test the book’s claim and share with us whether or not they felt their experience at Puget Sound had changed them, and, if so, how.

The results? At once totally unanimous and completely various. Case in point: By some mysterious stratagem, four members of the women’s basketball team managed to make it onto that night’s guest list (along with one member of the men’s team). They scattered themselves around the table like the old four corners offense. When each one took her turn to speak to the topic, she made it clear that the impact of belonging to a team of individuals who share a common goal had been powerful and crucial; and yet, basketball was not the most transformative thing at Puget Sound for any of them. What has turned out to be different for each—the unexpected awakening of intellectual curiosity about just about everything, said one; being the first in the family to go to a great college and travel far away from home for another; the opportunity to become a member of not one group, but a whole range of intersecting circles of people interested in totally different kinds of things, none of which she had ever imagined she would be passionate about, affirmed a third.

Then there was Tony, who had just returned from spending the summer in Chile, where, under a university-sponsored research grant, he had been studying the effects of forest fires on a rare species of lizard in a remote part of Tierra del Fuego. A biology major with an environmental studies minor (anda Spanish minor, too), he explained in an animated way the elaborate implications of his project for global environmental policy. Chile and the work both had changed him forever, he said. He’d grown an impressive dark beard in the process, too, which made his face look a lot different from what was on his ID card. But none of that was the biggest change for him, he said: The most transformative effect Puget Sound had on Tony (and here he grew more quiet) was finding that the college is a place where he could be who he was and everyone would appreciate him for that.Now that was big.

We heard from Jason—a senior from Sacramento majoring in molecular and cellular biology with a neuroscience emphasis and a minor in religion. He explained why many of us hadn’t seen much of him: He spent most of his life in the labs of Thompson and Harned halls. He tried to express how faculty mentoring had changed his life, not only in drawing him into the field of neuroscience but in making him feel like a colleague among his professors. He had done research with them; even more memorable, and somehow life-changing, was his presence at the chemistry department night at Chalet Bowl recently, where he actually danced with one of his teachers and sang bluegrass music with another. “I mean, I danced with Jo Crane!” he exclaimed.

Maddy’s life was changed by a Puget Sound alumnus she met who gave her an internship at the Ojai Music Festival last year and got her some invaluable professional experience as a business and leadership major and music minor. She is now on course for a career in the music business. “What a network!”

Andy, a dual major in econ and BLP, had been hooked up through the program with an alumnus, a local businessman who served as his mentor in executive leadership. As a result, Andy has a job after graduation in a top national consulting firm. That changed everything.

Chad came to us from Pennsylvania. In an elevator one day in Washington, D.C., he met a woman who worked on Capitol Hill and who turned out to be a Puget Sound alumna. They got to talking, and all of a sudden Chad was a White House intern, working with Vice President Biden. He’s majoring in politics and government now, as you might have guessed. Chad confirmed what we all know: that our affable VP could use a little discipline for some of his spontaneously expressed enthusiasm. “Joe will never change.” At least that’s how Chad saw it after his internship.

Alexandria, from SoCal, the lone freshman in the group, spoke last. After hearing the stories of her predecessors, she was on fire (figuratively, I mean) about what was before her. She allowed that already, in a few short weeks, she had found her life changing in ways she could never have imagined.

A college that changes lives? Bingo. Mary’s and mine were changed again that night, too. After the warmth and crackle of the students’ conversation left the house quiet again, we recalled with awe some of the details of those almost Ovidian tales of metamorphosis we had just heard. Plenty of fire in the fireside dinners, all right, even without a log in the old fireplace. Another night at the Prez Rez filled with light, a little bit of heat, and not a hint of smoke anywhere. Gives you hope, know what I mean?