The Wellesley Effect

The Wellesley Effect

You have probably had this experience. You’re at a party, or a conference, or on the playground with your kids, and you find yourself in a conversation with a stranger. As you talk with her, there’s something about her—she’s smart, to be sure, but it’s something more than that—that makes you ask her where she went to college. When she replies, you laugh, “Of course you went to Wellesley!”

It’s hard to define, but it’s unmistakable. That thing that Wellesley women have; the thing that this College does to students. Call it the Wellesley Effect: the influence this place has on young women, and through them, the influence that Wellesley has on the world as its graduates work to make it a better place.

This fall, the College launched Wellesley’s Campaign to Advance the Wellesley Effect, its first major comprehensive campaign since the pioneering Women Who Will campaign concluded in 2005. The ambitious $500-million effort will support initiatives that will sustain and expand Wellesley’s impact into the future, ensuring that Wellesley women will continue to make a critical difference in the world.

As the College was unveiling the campaign, we found a handful of alumnae who exemplify the Wellesley Effect in different ways: a high-school chemistry teacher who ignites her students’ passion for the sciences; a Washington insider who helps Wellesley students find their ideal D.C. internships; a beloved and pioneering law school professor; a former Marine who overcame injuries to raise awareness for injured veterans; the chair of Wellesley’s powerhouse economics department; and an infectious-disease physician who devotes half her time to relief work in disaster-stricken countries.

As inspirational as these women’s stories are, we suspect that we could have pulled any six names from the alumnae directory and heard wonderful tales about how Wellesley has shaped our graduates for the better, and how they have been a positive force for change, whether on the global stage or in their local communities. In fact, Wellesley is collecting anecdotes from alumnae about what the Wellesley Effect means to them. Visit to join the chorus of voices.

Science Lessons

Science Lessons


Heather Haines ’08 had always assumed she would become a scientist, but after a summer position at Berkeley—what should have been a dream job—she knew in her heart that research just wasn’t for her. Haines broke the news during her senior year: Rather than pursuing a Ph.D., she wanted to teach high-school chemistry. “It was a hard thing to say at Wellesley,” she says. A big fat acceptance envelope from the Knowles Science Teaching Foundation (KSTF) provided what Haines calls the “biggest gift of my career.” Designed to increase the number of high-caliber math and science teachers, the KSTF program funded her master’s at Boston College and granted Haines access to a wealth of support, training, and confidence in her choice.

Now Haines teaches Advanced Placement chemistry and chairs the science department at the Community Charter School of Cambridge, which aims to send 100 percent of its population, 92 percent of whom are students of color, on to college success, she says.

Michele Sprengnether ’84, who has volunteered in Haines’s classroom as part of her own teacher training, says Haines is making a difference for her students and the profession. “There is a message out there that teaching is not at the same professional status as going into medicine or academic research,” says Sprengnether, who has a Ph.D. in atmospheric chemistry from MIT. “But Heather is continuously improving, discussing challenges across disciplines, and networking on a national level. Things that a physician would do in practice, she does in her teaching.”

Haines has turned her classroom into a laboratory space. Take, for example, lectures: “Through cognitive science, we’ve learned that people are not designed to sit still for an hour and absorb information,” says Sprengnether. Instead, Haines’s students watch their lectures online in their own time. In class, they gather in small groups to tackle a problem. “They can be talking about chemical equilibrium, or acids and bases, and they’re getting an opportunity to think about it and articulate it to their peers, and to evaluate each others’ answers,” says Sprengnether. “Each student is participating at exactly the level where they need to be learning.”

In the midst of all the group work, Haines works one-on-one with anyone who is struggling. “Then I’m not the keeper of the knowledge, because they’re empowered to use all the tools at their disposal to find answers. I’m just there to help them find their way if they get lost,” she says.

Haines hopes to open her students’ eyes to the science all around them and “make them realize that they can succeed in the STEM fields if they want to,” she says, referring to science, technology, engineering, and math. “At places like Wellesley, there are a lot of people who just believe they’re meant to be scientists. I think I was one of them, and I think that can be intimidating. But it’s really about your drive and how hard you’re willing to work and not some sort of innate ability. I want every student, regardless of what they look like or who they are, to get that same education and get into STEM fields and have a voice.”

The D.C. Insider

The D.C. Insider

Charlotte Hayes ’75

Students participating in the Wellesley College Washington Internship Program have an uncanny instinct for landing their own internships, says Charlotte Hayes ’75. “Especially in the last 15 years, what I’ve found is that the women who come here from Wellesley might say something like: ‘I want to work in micro-business in Jordan.’ They just come up with these things, and they make it happen.”

But invariably, as the deadline approaches, a number of students are still scrambling to find a placement. “This is where Charlotte is of extreme importance,” says Professor Emeritus Alan Schechter, who ran the program for many years. “Charlotte backstops the director where necessary to find names of people and organizations that would match the student’s interests. Even as it’s gotten harder and harder to place interns, Charlotte has always, 100 percent of the time, found spots for everyone.”

Hayes has been working inside the Beltway for several decades, first in the office of Senator Barbara Mikulski from Maryland, then in the White House office of Vice President Al Gore, and currently as the deputy assistant secretary for policy in the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Administration and Management in the United States Department of Labor. With that huge title comes great responsibility: Her portfolio at the Department of Labor includes Federal sustainability and Federal agency performance management, among other matters. And in her free time, Hayes sits at the hub of Washington-area alumnae. Her facility for networking has made her the linchpin of the College’s internship programs in D.C., volunteering to help scores of students find summer and Wintersession placements.

Hayes personally welcomes the group when they arrive in the District and pairs each intern with a mentor. “I’ll put out a call saying I need mentors, and if I send it to 60 people I’ll get 12 responses back in five minutes,” Hayes says. “The network is abuzz like that, all the time.”

As a mentor to many interns and young alumnae alike, Hayes herself reviews interview skills with them, helps them figure out the politics of any given job situation, and generally asks them a lot of questions. “I’ll beat them up a bit,” she says. “Tell me about what you did on this project, and why isn’t that on your résumé? I try to help them think about where they are, how they connect with the world, how to navigate this space.”

Hayes has been known to write 10 graduate school recommendations for a former intern. Alejandra Cuin Miranda ’16, who interned in the chief economist’s office at the Department of Labor, says there are no lengths to which Hayes would not go. “She told me more than once if there was someone I wanted to talk to in the city, I could just mention it and she would arrange something,” Miranda says.

Countless other alums have similar stories. Asked about the depth of her Wellesley contacts list, Hayes scrolls through it. “I don’t know, it’s probably in the hundreds,” says this power user of the Wellesley network. And as she’s busy estimating—bing!—a new email pops up in her inbox. “Oh, hey,” she says. “It’s from a rising senior at Wellesley.” There’s one more.

The Trailblazer

The Trailblazer

Ruth-Arlene Wood Howe ’55

Growing up in Scotch Plains, N.J., Ruth-Arlene Wood Howe ’55 was an only child, and no expense was spared in her education. Her parents, both college graduates and leaders in their church and community, paid to send her to the nearby schools in Westfield, with the mostly white children of New York City investment bankers, even though they lived “literally in the shadows” of the public school in Scotch Plains that served her black neighborhood. When Howe moved into Munger for her freshman year in 1951, she was one of three African-American students in her class.

Howe had a very typical Wellesley experience. She majored in sociology/anthropology and minored in psychology. She met her husband, a student at Bowdoin at the time, in the living room of Munger. The people she lived with remain close friends, 50 years later. “There’s also something about the College experience that really introduces you to the mission of service, and I really absorbed it,” she says. “There’s an obligation to share and to give back.”

Wellesley’s service mission harmonized with the values her parents had passed on to her. In Daughters of Kings, a collection of women’s personal stories, Howe wrote in a chapter called “Reflections” that during her schooling, she “was well aware of the many inequalities, inequities, and injustices that existed. I was raised, however, with the hope and expectation that the position and status of the Negro would improve and that I had an obligation to make a contribution to that improvement.”

And Howe has, many times over: early on in her career as a social worker, and later, beginning in the 1970s, as a professor at Boston College Law School, where she was the first African-American woman to receive tenure and the rank of full professor. She did important research on transracial adoption, foster care, and child welfare, focusing great energy on the well-being of African-American children. She was a founding and beloved faculty advisor to the Journal of Law and Social Justice, originally known as the Third World Law Journal, at BC Law. She was also the faculty advisor to the Black Law Student Association there for 30 years.

The organization of that group came on the heels of similar, though ultimately less successful, efforts at Wellesley in the mid-1970s, when a group of alumnae worked to establish the Wellesley College Black Alumnae Network. Joan Wallace-Benjamin ’75, president and C.E.O. of Boston’s Home for Little Wanderers and a former alumnae trustee at Wellesley, first encountered Howe through these meetings, some of which took place in Howe’s Boston living room. “She brought a maturity, ‘older’ perspective and interesting set of experiences to our discussions about what it meant to be a student of color on Wellesley’s campus in the ’50s and in the 1970s and even today,” says Wallace-Benjamin. “Ruth-Arlene has remained a dedicated Wellesley alum in support of the College generally and in support of the African-American women who are alums and the students of today in particular. We are all so fortunate to have her as our trailblazer, mentor, and friend.”

Going the Distance

Going the Distance

Felicia Wilkerson ’93

In the spring of 2013, Felicia Wilkerson ’93 experienced what she calls “a bit of a mash of a series of unfortunate events.” In April, the helicopter pilot received formal notification from the Marine Corps of her medical retirement, the result of traumatic injuries that occurred during childbirth. Doctors had told her she would never be able to run again. Then in May, her husband walked out on the marriage. “Everything that I thought was going to be in my life, the future I’d started crafting, all of a sudden was gone,” she says. “I went through that summer in a really bad place.”

That September, a nurse looked at Wilkerson, a lifelong athlete who had withered to 89 pounds. “She said, ‘You know what, honey? You are not a pioneer.’ It woke me up,” Wilkerson says. Above all else, she didn’t want to be defined by her circumstances. “It made me decide to do something that would allow me to find my new normal—and do that in a way that would allow me to give back to others who are recovering from their own injuries,” Wilkerson says.

By the spring of 2014, the newly single mom of two had launched a yearlong fund-raising project, in which she committed to run 1,200 training miles for 12 races in 12 months. Funds would support the Semper Fi Fund and the MARSOC Foundation, which assist injured military personnel and their families. Her goal was to raise awareness and resources for “those who dedicate their lives to military service and awareness of what that sacrifice means,” she says. Somewhere in all those miles, of course, she found her own recovery, too.

As she was putting the schedule together, Wilkerson reached out to people she’d known who were injured in service, dedicating races in their honor. She also contacted Laura Allen ’93, a classmate who runs the Maine chapter of Team Red, White & Blue, which helps veterans connect with their communities. Allen points out that Wilkerson’s project represents a “massive undertaking, not only on her physically and emotionally, but logistically, as well,” she says. “I think Wellesley gives us that capacity and drive and passion to make an endeavor successful. We are willing and able to attack it from any angle and figure out all the necessary components that need to be in place in order to be successful. For Felicia, both her Wellesley background and her military training really assisted her.”

Wilkerson says Wellesley gave her the self-confidence to “seize an opportunity, even if you don’t know the outcome.” Her 12 for 12 project has brought in $10,000 in donations so far, and Wilkerson continues to look for the next opportunity. One thought: Qualifying for the Boston Marathon was something she thought she’d never be able to do after her injuries. “It might take me 10 years, but I’d like to some day return and hear the cheers as I run past Wellesley. Maybe I could find a way to do it,” she says.

Read about Felicia Wilkerson’s journey on her blog,

Economic Excellence

Economic Excellence

Kristin Butcher ’86

Wellesley’s economics department has been a powerhouse for a really long time, says Kristin Butcher ’86, the Marshall I. Goldman Professor of Economics and chair of the department. “And when I say ‘a really long time,’ I mean at least since the 1880s,” she says, when pioneering economist Katharine Coman introduced the first course at the College and ultimately created the department.

“I am no Katharine Coman,” Butcher says, “but I would claim that the way the department is organized today is that people are really interested in their research, which is complementary to their teaching. It’s not a substitute.” One of Butcher’s research interests, for example, is the impact of immigration on the United States. Growing up in an immigrant family in California, “I’ve been interested in these questions my whole life,” she says. She has published at least 10 papers on the topic (among many, many others) and developed an upper-level course on the economics of immigration that builds upon the tools students learn in the department’s required econometrics course.

Whenever she offers the class, Butcher scours the available literature to make sure the syllabus reflects the latest studies. As the students work on empirical projects throughout the semester, she can identify new data sources revealing new insights or questions she might want to pursue in her own research. “It all works together really nicely,” she says, “and I think the students come out with a strong set of skills.”

Students who take advantage of the opportunity to work side-by-side on a research project with a professor can come away with compounded benefits: Becky Cannon Fraenkel ’11 worked on a summer project with Butcher, looking into questions about immigration.“If I hadn’t had the opportunity to do undergraduate research, I don’t think I’d be in graduate school right now,” says Fraenkel, a Ph.D. candidate at University of California, San Diego, and one of two National Science Foundation Fellowships out of the economics department in 2014.

These opportunities make Wellesley “stand out as one of few liberal-arts colleges that have committed to the teacher/research model,” says Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach ’95. She and Butcher have been collaborating for many years, since meeting at Princeton, where both received their Ph.D.s. “It’s hard to articulate, but you learn so much from the guild aspect of the career [by] being able to sit and work together and watch and learn from someone more experienced,” she says.

“[Professor Emeritus] Chip Case always used to say that Wellesley produced more female economists than any other school,” Butcher says. “I think we were bypassed by Harvard at some point, but he was always very proud of that fact that there are so many Wellesley pedigrees out there doing economics.” Looking ahead, Butcher expects great things from the current crop of students, especially as they continue the tradition of partnering with the department’s young alumnae and faculty, making a difference in the world that is uniquely Wellesley.

A Call to Serve

A Call to Serve

Kwan Kew Lai ’74

On Oct. 14, 2014, when the third patient on American soil was hospitalized for the Ebola virus, infectious disease specialist Kwan Kew Lai ’74 flew to Liberia, where the epidemic was raging. For six weeks, she volunteered with International Medical Corps at an Ebola treatment unit (ETU) in Bong, an area northeast of Monrovia. Unable to sleep after her shifts, she would lie awake at night thinking about the patients struggling in the ward that day, their isolation and profound suffering. “Volunteering in the ETU has once again reminded me that our time in this world is transient,” she wrote on the blog she kept during her stay. “It is fine to live life to the fullest, but one should make it count.”

Lai has always felt this impulse to volunteer, the notion of ministrare entwined in her DNA, but early in her career she felt she had to train her focus on repaying medical school debts and raising her three children. That stage in life, as a full-time professor of medicine and infectious disease at UMass Medical, “was not compatible with running around the world, volunteering,” she says.

The turning point came on Dec. 26, 2004, when a 9.1 magnitude earthquake rocked the Indian Ocean. Watching the effects of the tsunami unfold, “I just had a very strong feeling that I had to be there, and everything else was secondary,” Lai says. She lined up a three-week trip to India to care for survivors. By then, her youngest child was finishing high school. “I thought really hard that maybe it’s time to change my career,” she says.

It took about a year to piece together half-time employment in clinical care, allowing her to dedicate the other half to relief work. Since 2005, she has volunteered in Vietnam, the Philippines, Tanzania, Uganda, South Africa, Malawi, Libya, and Nigeria, also doing earthquake relief in Haiti and Nepal, and drought and famine relief in Kenya and on the border of Somalia, for refugees of the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan. Shortly after returning from Liberia, while serving out her quarantine at home in Belmont, Mass., she was asked to return to West Africa to volunteer in an Ebola center in Sierra Leone. Which, of course, she did.

“As an infectious disease doctor, I think I would feel very guilty about it if I did not go to help. I knew my family was very worried, but I knew in the long run they would be OK if something were to happen to me,” Lai says. “I just felt that my place was to be there, and not at home.”

After growing up in poor circumstances in Malaysia, which received its independence from British colonial rule in 1957, Lai says she can’t help but draw comparisons between her country, which is doing quite well, and the African nations she’s visited. “The circumstances are such that the people can’t rise up, and someone needs to help them. What I do is just a drop in the bucket of a big ocean,” she says. “But it’s something that has to be done.”

Read daily accounts of Kwan Kew Lai’s time in Liberia on her blog,


Jennifer McFarland Flint, a former associate editor of Wellesley magazine, is a freelance writer in Concord, Mass.

World illustration by Jessica Durrant

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