Coming home

Campus Visit program reconnects alumni with Tufts today

As a political science major 30 years ago, Nancy Barton, J72, never gave much thought to what was going on at the School of Engineering. "It might just as well have been a different school from Liberal Arts," she recalled.

But last spring, Barton was back on the Medford/Somerville campus, listening to four professors explain their work in biomedical engineering and engineering education outreach. "It was fascinating, absolutely fascinating," Barton said.

toy robots

Charles Auster, A73, and Staci Berman Barber, J85, prepare to race the robotic cars they programmed during the Campus Visit last spring. The second Campus Visit for alumni will take place this month. © Bethany Versoy

That session was part of a three-day Campus Visit March 6-8 by Barton and two dozen other Tufts alumni, who were invited to sample the present-day undergraduate experience and to learn more about the scholarship being pursued by students and faculty.

The alumni, along with their spouses and parents of current students, toured the campus, attended lectures by faculty from several departments in the schools of Arts, Sciences and Engineering and met with undergraduates. Their reaction was overwhelmingly positive: Alumni say the visit not only broadened their horizons intellectually, but reinforced their lifelong connection to the Tufts community.

In other words, you can go home again.

"I think it was a great way to reconnect with the school," said A. Dana Callow Jr., A74, A04P. "You have an impression of what the faculty was like from years ago, but getting the chance to talk about research today opens a lot of eyes.

"It was a way to see the university, the faculty and the work that is being done in a very hands-on manner. It's a way to get in there and really feel the energy and excitement of the new administration and see the changes going on at the school," said Callow, a university trustee.

The Campus Visit is a new idea at Tufts; it was launched this spring, and another Campus Visit is scheduled for October 16-18. The visits are based on a similar program that Tufts President Lawrence S. Bacow organized during his tenure as chancellor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"Tufts is an incredibly dynamic institution," Bacow said. "While people sometimes think that universities never change, we are constantly evolving. The Campus Visit encourages alumni and friends to go back to school for a few days to understand how we are constantly strengthening our teaching, research, facilities and programs."

It's academic
The majority of the Campus Visit was devoted to presentations by faculty members, "which is sort of unusual for an alumni event," Barton said. "They are usually about networking; this was much more of a lecture format, and everyone just really loved it."

For the faculty who participated, it was also a chance to engage in something a little out of the ordinary. "I think it's a good challenge for faculty to present some of their thinking in a slightly different context from what they're used to," said Daniel C. Dennett, University Professor and Fletcher Professor of Philosophy, who directs Tufts' Center for Cognitive Studies. Dennett discussed the difficulty of trying to explain the "magic" of consciousness.

"Every audience is different, and you can get accustomed to ways of presenting material that works for sophomores, say, or for students who already have had particular course prerequisites, but to present to a wider group, you have to retool some of your presentation," he said.


Vincent P. Manno, professor of mechanical engineering, describes the latest research at the School of Engineering to participants in last spring's Campus Visit program. © Bethany Versoy

David Kaplan, professor and chair of biomedical engineering, agreed. "Obviously, the presentation was purposely delivered in a less-technical format," he said.

Yet, while few of the visitors had engineering backgrounds, most said that they were intrigued and delighted by the presentations by Kaplan and his colleagues, Sergio Fantini, assistant professor of biomedical engineering and electrical engineering, and Chris Rogers, professor of mechanical engineering. "It's a great way to engage the alumni in areas they are used to, as well as areas they know nothing about, but can get excited about," Kaplan said.

"The [School of Engineering] has never been anything I've thought much about, but I was fascinated to find out about the work the engineering school is doing and how it's being translated to the medical school," said Norma Sears, A83P.

"I've got to admit, being down at the engineering school playing with the robots was fun," added her husband, Dr. Robert Sears, A50, M54, A83P, a former faculty member at the School of Medicine and former president of the Tufts University Alumni Association.

"I think the speakers were very well chosen," Bob Sears said. "The faculty were clearly experts in their vein, and they didn't give us a lot of just chewed-up stuff, but they really talked about some of their research and gave us something to think about."

Back to school
The Campus Visit reminds alumni of the meaning of their "commencement" ceremony—the need to be involved in lifelong learning, said Sol Gittleman, University Professor and former provost, who served as the guide and "general welcome wagon" for the group.

"It's refreshing for me to see that people can reconnect intellectually with an institution and get a sense of how special the faculty really is," Gittleman said. "When people are back in school, it's very good for them; it's very good for the university."

"When you're an alumnus, you're doing your own thing. You don't always know what's going on at the university," said Dr. Ancy Verdier, A96, D03. "When you're physically on [the Medford/Somerville] campus, you see things that not only bring back memories, you see the progress."

The October Campus Visit will focus on undergraduates who are conducting research. Providing more opportunities for undergraduates to get involved in substantive research is a Tufts priority, which was noted in the report of the president's Task Force on the Undergraduate Experience and prompted the launching of the Summer Scholars program this past summer.

The importance to the educational experience of undergraduates participating in research was also addressed in some of the lectures during the spring visit. Juliet Fuhrman, associate professor of biology, talked about her work on parasitic diseases that are common in the tropics. But "what I tried to convey to the alumni was the extent of undergraduate involvement in my research," she said.

"I think that it's terrific training for students, and I highlighted the work of two students—Myriam Claudio, A03, and Kimi Kobayashi, A04—who have been working with me this past year, and I think the alumni enjoyed seeing the level of involvement in scholarship that undergraduates are capable of," Fuhrman said.

'Don't lose touch'
The visit also gave most of the alumni their first chance to meet President Bacow and his wife, Adele Fleet Bacow, and to learn more about the president's vision for the university. The group enjoyed a dinner at Gifford House hosted by the Bacows. "Certainly, this was our first opportunity to meet the Bacows, and both Larry and Adele seem like very special people," said Bob Sears. "I couldn't help but think, [President Bacow] might not have been here very long, but he sure understands what some of us think Tufts is about and what it needs."

"Tufts is on an excellent path, and it seems like [President Bacow's] doing a fabulous job for the university," said Fabian Bachrach, A84, G84, a former economics major now in the aircraft leasing business in Boca Raton, Fla. In particular, Bachrach said, he was glad to hear about the president's commitment to establishing a need-blind undergraduate admissions policy.

"Overall, [the Campus Visit] is a very good idea," Bachrach said. "It improves the bonding between the university and the alumni, which is an important thing."

The visit also presented a chance for alumni who had never met each other before to hear different perspectives on the Tufts experience across the decades. That, too, was enlightening, the alumni agreed.

"It's good to have diverse groups, getting alumni to talk to each other. Each one will have a different perspective on the changes, how Tufts is coming to the new millennium," said Verdier. "I think I was the youngest out of all the alumni, but I didn't mind that. Tufts needs to not only reach out to older alumni, but to young alumni as well.

"All I've known after my high school has been Tufts," said Verdier, a double Jumbo who graduated from the dental school in May. "I stayed at Tufts; I consider Tufts part of my family. If you can get that sort of feeling from the other alumni, that will show in the future."

Most of those who attended the first Campus Visit said they would advise those invited for future visits to be prepared for an intellectually engaging experience.

"Treat the weekend as a time to enjoy and get intellectual stimulation as much as to reconnect with Tufts," said Callow.

"I'd say to Tufts alumni, as well as to undergraduates, once you graduate, Tufts University is with you for the rest of your life," he said. "It's not a place you were at. It's always part of what you experience. Don't lose touch with it."