Each year at Reunion, the Distinguished Faculty Award (DFA) is given to a beloved former faculty member of the Colleges. The award – created, selected and bestowed by former students – was presented this year to Professor of English Emerita Claudette Columbus on Saturday, June 7, during a special afternoon ceremony.
Held on the Scandling Campus Center patio, alums and other members of the HWS community gathered to witness one of their favorite professors receive the honor, showing the great extent that her commitment to HWS has been appreciated.
Dr. Peter Earl ’78 and his wife, Linda, drove 750 miles to see his former Honors adviser get the award.
“She deserves this like no other,” said Earl, of Kingsport, Tenn. “She was just remarkable. She’s probably the most amazing teacher that I’ve ever had in my educational career, and as a physician, I’ve had a lot of education.”
A member of the English Department faculty from 1969 until her retirement in 2003, Columbus taught the literature of late-18th and 19th-century authors, including John Ruskin, Charles Dickens and Robert Browning. She also studied native Andean practices with two Fulbright grants that enabled her to visit Peru, and additional grants from Hobart and William Smith. Columbus was instrumental in instituting the ombuds men and women at the Colleges, and in creating the HWS Women’s Studies and Latin American Studies programs.
On Saturday, the ceremony opened with a welcome address from Alumnae Association President Christine Bennett West ’94, followed by the DFA award introduction given by DFA Committee member Dr. Lisa M. Delucia ’04. Delucia called the DFA “one of the greatest points of the pride of the Alumni and Alumnae Association.”
Also during the ceremony, Provost and Dean of Faculty Titilayo Ufomata spoke of her experiences at Reunion two years ago when she was “amazed” by the respect and relationships that had formed between the staff and faculty and their students.
“Today we celebrate the bonds that form when professors really care about their students,” Ufomata said. “This is the highest honor anyone in my profession can receive.”
The award was presented to Columbus by Assistant Professor of Africana Studies James D. McCorkle ’76, who himself was a student of Columbus.
“Claudette Columbus was transformational to me and to all of her students,” said McCorkle. “She understood students who hadn’t yet figured out their direction and let them in on their own secrets.”
McCorkle also spoke of Columbus’ “groundbreaking” courses, her instrumental work in bringing women’s studies to the Colleges and her support for the growth of the Latin American Studies program.
“Claudette’s knowledge was expansive, always turning the corner so that you couldn’t look at something the same again,” McCorkle said. “I hope everyone has, and has had, a course that anchors them and sways them simultaneously.”
Upon receiving the award, Columbus reflected on her time at HWS.
“What most sets the Colleges apart are the underlying and ethical resolve of the Colleges,” she began. “The Colleges foster freedom supported by ethical aims.”
Columbus also thanked the Colleges, and was received with a standing ovation at the conclusion of her speech.
“It has been my privilege to live here and to work here,” Columbus said. “I owe the Colleges for sending as many professors abroad as possible. I trust Hobart and William Smith Colleges to always lead students openly and outwardly into the world with the daring to differ.”
President Mark D. Gearan gave the closing remarks, telling of the “scores of alums” who always ask for Claudette and tell of how she transformed their lives. “Most especially, we thank you for the lives that you’ve touched,” he said.
Steven Smith ’96, of Salt Point, N.Y., was one of those students whose life was forever transformed by Columbus’ teaching and guidance.
“She inspired me to become a professional academic myself and has been hugely influential in my career,” said Smith, now a professor of Classics at Hofstra University. “When I found out she was receiving the award I knew I absolutely had to be here. She was just a remarkable professor and one of the greatest things about HWS that I can remember.”
Columbus received a B.A. from Bucknell University, a M.A. with high honors from Columbia University, and a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. Her articles, published in a number of professional journals, range from essays on major figures in the English Romantic and Victorian periods to essays on Latin American subjects, on which she has written two books. She led several semesters of off-campus study to London and Ecuador, and in 2003, received the HWS Faculty Prize for Teaching. She was also awarded faculty prizes for community service and scholarship.
Her scholarship has continued even after her retirement from HWS. In 2013, “at the ridiculous age of 80,” as Columbus says, she was invited to present a paper at the centenary celebration of a major Peruvian author’s birth; the paper was published later that year.
Established in 1990 by the Hobart Alumni Association and the William Smith Alumnae Association, the DFA recognizes the importance that graduates of these Colleges place on the contributions of outstanding faculty members of the past-for their impact as teachers, mentors and scholars. Nominations for the award are sought by all alumni and alumnae and are professors who are retired or have moved on from Hobart and William Smith for more than five years or are deceased.
The ceremony was organized by members of the DFA Committee: Co-Chair Julie Bazan D’Angelo ’93, Dr. Lisa Delucia ’04, Co-Chair Porter Hoagland ’77, Herman W. Tull ’78 and Allyson Pagnani Martin ’82.