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The Story in History: Olin Celebrates 20

Often when institutions mark a significant anniversary, there are formal speeches and panels on lofty topics. In contrast, Olin College is telling stories to celebrate the 20th anniversary of receiving its founding charter from the state in 1997.

The celebrations, themed “Boldly Go: Stories of 20 years,” kicked off Friday, December 1, with a “storytelling circle” in the Norden auditorium on the college’s campus. A group of storytellers boasting long affiliations with Olin sat on tall chairs in a semicircle at the front of the auditorium and reminisced on the ups, downs and turning points of the college since the early years.

The storytellers included longtime faculty member Joanne Pratt, alumni Tiana Veldwisch  and Ben Hill  and Linda Canavan, the college registrar. The moderator was Jon Adler, associate professor of psychology, who applauded the storytelling approach of the event.

“If stories aren’t always accurate in every detail, they are the only way we have of getting at what the past means to us, both as individuals and as a collective,” said Adler.

Pratt pointed to the first Candidates’ Weekend — which brought the top pool of prospective students to campus for interviews and activities — as a personal high point.

Initially, faculty envisioned long hours of presentations to convey the plans for the new college. In recognition of the project-based curriculum they hoped to create, they quickly scrapped that agenda and built the weekend around a hands-on design/build exercise involving blue foam creations.

The slimmed down weekend of activities got the candidates so enthusiastic about Olin nearly 100 percent of them said they would enroll if accepted, a level of enthusiasm that has characterized Candidates’ Weekends ever since.

“Whenever I do Candidates’ Weekend, I come out with so much energy and excitement about Olin because you see the people you’re talking to so excited to be here,” said Pratt. 

As the faculty worked to fulfill Olin’s mission of rethinking engineering education, things didn’t always go perfectly smoothly. Canavan remembered a time during the first year, before faculty learned to calculate a feasible workload, when the curriculum “failed royally.” Recognizing how stressed and unhappy the students were becoming in mid-semester, faculty declared a day off, complete with bouncy castles, a tug-of-war and obstacle courses. The following week, a newly calibrated set of assignments was launched.

It wasn’t the only time the best-laid curricular plans ran up against hard realities. The curriculum was often planned only a semester ahead, and sometimes not even that.

“We weren’t ready for the junior year,” noted Pratt. Still, the seniors in the first graduating class were pretty good sports about the experimental nature of their program, Pratt recalled, printing up t-shirts that said “Class of 2006: The Worst Olin Education Ever.”

Veldwisch remembered the early years when the school’s enrollment would grow exponentially with the addition of each new class. When her class, the third to join Olin, arrived, the new residence hall wasn’t ready and a couple dozen students had to live in “mods,” or trailers, a short distance from the main campus.

“There was a set of sophomores and juniors we didn’t know well because they lived so far away, on the other side of the soccer field,” recalled Veldwisch. “They had to walk a few extra minutes to get to the dining hall, so they were kind of rugged.”

Hill remembered when his class, the second to join Olin, arrived, were greeted enthusiastically by the 75 members of the first class, who had had the campus all to themselves until that point.

“The Class of 2007’s arrival day was the best because everyone was so lonely,” said Hill, to laughter. Newcomers were quickly integrated into the student body, he noted.

At the end of the event, listing all ways the college forged big progress out of humble materials, from blue foam to the number of hours in the day, Adler summed up what he saw as the key theme.

“One thing that stands out to me in all these stories is doing a lot with a little,” he said.