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At Ease: Vassar Meets West Point

“Bret Easton Ellis,” replied Liam Phillips, when asked his favorite author.

“Oh, I really like his writing,” said Sophia Rutkin. “Although much of it sits in my ‘to read’ pile. But American Psycho?” With a wave of her hand, she shows her admiration.

“I’ve read everything he’s written,” Phillips responded with a smile.

With that, the ice was broken and the two students continued to exchange likes, dislikes, and animated opinions over lunch.

The meeting between Rutkin and Phillips is part of an effort to facilitate dialogue between future civilian and military leaders. While Rutkin is a member of Vassar’s Class of 2015, Phillips is a junior at the United States Military Academy.

Phillips and 15 other cadets, as well as several faculty members from West Point, spent a day at Vassar in April as part of a program funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The initiative supports interactions between liberal arts colleges and nearby military institutions of higher education—in Vassar’s case, West Point. As Dean of Faculty Jon Chenette explained, “The initiative seeks to face squarely the growing gap between the military and civilian society, to facilitate dialogue between future civilian and military leaders, and to explore areas of mutual interest for our students, faculty, and institutions.”

For the 32 Vassar students and cadets, the inaugural day was a chance to meet and exchange ideas and experiences. The cadets chosen for the project were randomly matched with Vassar students who had been selected for the initiative. The cadets accompanied the Vassar students to classes, extracurricular activities, and had an opportunity to experience a typical day at Vassar.

“I really had no idea what to expect, and this made me curious,” said Mariah Vitali ’14. “I was most apprehensive about what it would be like interacting with a cadet. I feared that we would not have a lot in common or anything to talk about and that he or she might be judgmental of Vassar.”

Given a chance to reflect at the end of the day, Vitali said, “I learned so much! My cadet, Rachel Burdick (USMA ’14), and I were both so fascinated by the contrast between our personal similarities and how different our college lives are. I don’t think I expected to get along with her as well as I did and perhaps expected our interactions to be more forced and formal.”

During the visit, faculty from West Point and Vassar met in a conversation on “Military Academies and the Liberal Arts,” moderated by Jenny Magnes, a former member of the West Point faculty and assistant professor of physics at Vassar.

Magnes is a member of Vassar’s Mellon Civilian-Military Initiative Steering Committee, charged with planning and facilitating such exchanges. The committee is chaired by Maria Höhn (History); other members include Carlos Alamo (Sociology), Zachariah Mampilly (Political Science), Ismail Rashid (History) and Curtis Dozier (Classics). 

“We have been working with incredibly interesting and accomplished faculty at West Point, who cherish the liberal arts and critical thinking as much as we do,” said steering committee chair Maria Höhn. “I am really looking forward to next semester and the exchanges and collaborations we are planning for our students and their cadets.”

Ben Busch '91

The day’s programs culminated in a campus-wide reading by Vassar alumnus Benjamin Busch ’91. Busch majored in studio art at Vassar and went on to serve two tours of duty as a U.S. Marine officer in Iraq. His new memoir, Dust to Dust, chronicles, among other life events, his return from Iraq.

Reflecting on Busch’s presentation, Ellen Chamberlin USMA ’14, said, “His Q&A interested me greatly—particularly his explanation for why a military officer consents to deployment even if he doesn’t believe in the war. I’ve always struggled to answer that question, both in response to family and friends’ curiosity, and in response to my own ponderings. Ben phrased it perfectly, though. He went to Iraq because he wanted to protect his men. Regardless of Busch’s personal political views, those men would be sent to Iraq. So he decided to go with them, to protect them as completely as possible.

“I also liked his argument for the importance of art in war,” Chamberlin said of Busch, who is a writer, actor, and photographer. “He discussed how an appreciation and aptitude for art constitute the crux of an officer’s ability to lead successfully. Appreciation for ‘nuance’ assists the officer in completing his work and understanding its significance. I will always remember these comments as a cadet and an Army officer.”

Vassar students and faculty members plan to make a reciprocal visit to West Point in early May. Perhaps more similarities than differences will be discovered that day, if this overheard exchange is any indication.

When Michael Renner ’12 asked Ahmed Nasir USMA ’14 how he spends his free time, “Dude, I sleep,” was his quick response.

“Me, too!” laughed Renner.

–Pat Duane Lichtenberg ’90