College Corner with Liz Derickson

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Housing Coordinator Liz Derickson ‘01 recently decided to leave Swarthmore in order to attend a doctoral program in sociology. The Daily Gazette sat down with her to talk about her time here, her past experiences, and her plans for the future.
Daily Gazette: So, you’re going to graduate school in the fall. Have you decided where?

Liz Derickson: Yes, I’m going to Princeton.

DG: Congratulations. And so it’s a sociology Ph.D program, right? Do you have any more specific plans than that?

LD: Well, the program at Princeton is a joint degree program. It’s based in the sociology department, but it also has an interdisciplinary component: that’s the social policy piece, so that’s sort of the specifics on the program. As you probably know, doctoral programs are a pretty significant time investment in the long haul, so I’m certainly focused right now on the initial transition into grad school.

DG: Is it too early to think about plans for the future?

LD: Well, I mean I think as one might expect heading into a doctoral program, I hope to teach at the university level when I come out of the program, but of course I certainly have a lot of interest that I do now in terms of deaning. But the model with a doctoral program is definitely a focus on a career in teaching and research.

DG: Is there any particular reason you decided to leave to go to school? For example, I know Rafael Zapata is working on a sociology Ph.D. at Penn while also working here. Why did you decide not to do something like that?

LD: Well, I certainly thought about that. To start with the basic pieces, I really like my work here. Both professionally and personally, I’ve had a really wonderful experience working here. I was sort of in a unique position in that I was feeling ready to go to graduate school and further my education, but also not feeling escapist at all: I wasn’t particularly eager to leave this place. So, I thought about full-time doctoral programs, part-time doctoral programs, part-time master’s programs, sort of the whole gamut, and was seriously considering all of those. Ultimately, I really was excited about the possibility and on some level the privilege of going and doing my doctoral studies full-time, and really being able to be completely immersed in that process.

LD: There are a number of my colleagues, especially those in the deans’ office, who are pursuing advanced degrees and also working full-time, and I have the utmost respect for them. But for me, personally, I’m really excited about the opportunity of being completely immersed in the experience of being a student again, and of getting back into that sort of full-time intellectual pursuit.

DG: Okay. So, how was your time here?

LD: Oh, it was wonderful. You know, it’s funny, sort of heading into it I didn’t really know what it would be like. I had a very positive experience as an undergrad at Swarthmore, and this was a place that was really sort of a critical moment for me in terms of my own personal development and really growing up. Part of me was excited to come back as a staff-person because of that, but part of me was nervous about returning to a place that I had such a fond connection to, a place that I really — I had all sorts of challenges and difficult experiences while I was here as a student, but really overall it was very positive.

LD: I was sort of thinking that I would come back and really discover that this place behind the scenes is really not as positive or as supportive of an environment as it felt like to me as a student. Luckily, I was very happy to discover that this has been a really wonderful work environment for me. I really enjoy the students, I really feel like I can connect to them and relate to them — on some level, part of that is being a relatively recent alum. On the other hand, I love the professional relationships; I feel like there’s a really dynamic group of people who work here and are really committed to this broader endeavor of higher education.

DG: While you’ve been here as Housing Coordinator, you’ve been doing some other stuff: you were on the mascot committee, and you’re involved in Learning for Life….

LD: Yeah. One of the things that’s been fun about both my work environment is that my supervisor, Myrt Westphal, is very supportive of broader professional development. I’ve done a lot of different things…. Learning for Life is a program I was involved with in its beginnings as a student, and it’s been very exciting to come back and see the program still vibrant in a structure that I feel like is a better structure. I’ve also done other work with the Lang Center, which didn’t exist when I was a student here: I’ve served on the Swarthmore Foundation and the Lang Opportunity Scholars selection committee. That’s been really an exciting way to see the work that students are doing to stay connected to the broader world but also right here at Swarthmore. And I’ve been on a bunch of different committees, from the mascot to the crisis planning committee, the long-range planning process, I’m on the philanthropy committee….

LD: Even within the obvious structure of my position I get to work with students in a lot of different capacities: from Housing Committee to the RA selection process, I have a lot of flexibility and ability to work on different projects with different people. It’s not a boring job, shall we say. There’s also the element to it that’s fundamentally unpredictable: there’s some piece of what goes on that’s programmatic, but there’s also a big piece of it that’s responsive and supportive. I really like that piece of it too.

DG: So, between Swarthmore and Swarthmore, you did the Peace Corps and you were a public housing intern. What were those like? What’d you do?

LD: Well, six weeks after I graduated in the amphitheater, I left for the Peace Corps in Cape Verde, which is an archipelago off the coast of West Africa. I had never lived overseas before; I had some experience with Spanish in high school, but I had never lived in a context where I had to speak another language. I really had no idea what I was getting myself into. I had some concept of it, and had tried to engage in global issues while I was a student, but I had never had that basic experience of living in a really different context.

LD: So what I had hoped to get out of it was this cross-cultural living experience and really exploring my commitment to social service. I got both of those things. And after Swarthmore I was really ready for a challenge that was not entirely intellectual: I was going for these more personal, intercultural, psychological challenges, and I got what I was looking for. It was a tremendously challenging experience, and helped me build a lot of empathy in terms of operating in a different cultural context, learning a new language from scratch — the language spoken in Cape Verde is a Portuguese creole that I had never heard a word of before landing. My biggest fear was that it would be a very isolating, a very lonely experience, but quite the opposite: there were times when I thought I’d like some time by myself, but that’s not the Cape Verdeian context, that’s not how people operate. So I felt very happy and connected there, it was very hard to leave.

LD: Then I came back to the States and wanted to continue doing direct social service, but in an American context. So I worked in legal services in Philadelphia with tenants of public housing, both the traditional high-rise public housing projects and also recipients of Section 8 subsidized housing. That was really challenging work; I worked with absolutely brilliant lawyers at Legal Services who are incredibly committed to the work they do, and I learned a tremendous amount about the social welfare system, the legal system, how they interaction, and more importantly about the individuals who are negotiating both. I really loved it. I was pretty clear about two weeks in that I didn’t want to be a lawyer, but that was good to know. That was also when I really started to connect with the city of Philadelphia: I really enjoy living there, and I continue to live there now, working here but commuting.

LD: I hope that helps kind of fill in what I did and what it was like. They were very different experiences, but I think they also helped prepare me in interesting ways for this job. I mean, coming into this job I wasn’t…you wouldn’t look at my background and say, this is a person who’s been preparing for and is highly qualified for a job in higher education administration. But I found there were actually a lot of parallels between housing issues in Legal Services and housing issues that come up here, though again they’re in very different contexts.

DG: Okay, well, after your graduate program when you’re ready to start professoring, think there’s a chance you’ll come back to Swarthmore yet again?

LD: Swarthmore round three‽ Well, I don’t know, if I am that lucky then so be it. This is a wonderful place to work in general and certainly to teach. So, I don’t know, we shall see.

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