How Far You Must Go in Order to Return
In the fall of 1982, my senior year at South Salem High School, I embarked on the college selection process with high aspirations and hopes, but also, to be perfectly honest, with a mind to putting some distance between me and Salem, Oregon.
Sons of a biology professor in the College of Liberal Arts, my two brothers and I practically grew up on the Willamette University campus. My family was immersed in the Willamette campus culture: We attended Bearcat athletic events, concerts and lectures. It seemed we could hardly go downtown or to the grocery store without running into my father’s students and faculty colleagues. As a teenager, I worked summers bussing tables at campus events and conferences. Professor Bothun even helped me edit my college application essays. Everywhere I went, it seemed, people knew not only my name, but my entire life story.
At 18, I was more than ready for something new. Something different. Something else.
I knew for certain that I wanted a liberal arts education, which I already understood to be excellent preparation for the pursuit of a meaningful and successful life. Looking back, this fundamental criterion was informed, if subconsciously, by my close affiliation with Willamette and what I had observed growing up. Ultimately, I chose Carleton College and its Willamette-like qualities: A truly educated person has acquired knowledge across a broad spectrum, including arts and humanities, mathematics, sciences and social sciences, and values life-long learning. Teaching and learning are the college’s paramount activities, including opportunities for research and scholarship, which strengthen both. Low student-to-faculty ratios and small class sizes are infinitely more satisfying and worthwhile. A small, residential campus builds a sense of community and fosters civic, intellectual and social engagement.
It didn’t hurt that Northfield, Minn., was more than a thousand miles from home, either.
After a rewarding journey over nearly three decades that led from Willamette to Carleton to Princeton to Caltech and, most recently, the University of California Santa Cruz, I am pleased to have returned to my home. Although Willamette’s red-brick buildings and park-like fields and gardens feel so familiar to me, I can see, through the newly acquired lens of a university president, that much has changed. Willamette is indeed an institution on the rise, gaining a national reputation for innovation and achievement.
After my appointment to the presidency was announced in May, many alumni, students, faculty, staff, friends and colleagues posted messages to the online guest book on the university’s web page. I enjoyed reading these posts very much. This one, from a current staff member, really struck home: “Congratulations on your appointment as Willamette’s president. Everything I have heard about you during the past ten days is extraordinary. However, it all pales in comparison to what your father has told me about you during the past few years. I am eager to meet you.”
Some things about Willamette have not changed one bit. I am honored to be at the helm of an institution that was such a formative force in my early life and to rejoin a community in which I have deep familial roots and connections. I look forward to getting acquainted — and reacquainted — with both.
Stephen E. Thorsett
“After a rewarding journey over nearly three decades ... I am pleased to have returned to my home.”