Three Generations of Bennington
Many Bennington alumni credit the community they found at the College among their most valuable lifelong influences. For Connie Golub Gorfinkle ’57, Jeanne Gorfinkle-Wiley ’85, and Lulu Wiley ’20, however, the Bennington network exists even within their own family.
Before the College went coed in 1969, Roland Heintzelman, Connie’s English teacher at Newton South High School in Massachusetts, recommended Bennington to her as the best women’s college.
“I didn’t know where I wanted to go to college, though I knew I was interested in writing,” said Connie. “Roland told me that Bennington was in Vermont, and that they had a wonderful attitude about students creating their own way through school. They have all these options, he said, but nobody orders you to take this or that.”
Per her mentor’s advice, Connie met with then-Director of Admissions Rebecca Stickney, who stressed the importance of seeing the campus for herself.
“When I walked onto campus, I knew that this was the place for me,’” said Connie. “It was so beautiful, though very different than it is now. The only dorms were the cottages, and that wonderful expanse of lawn in front of the Commons gave you the sense that the world ended there, just dropped off to the sky beyond.”
The feeling of seeing the College for the first time, said Connie, was “like looking across a crowded room and seeing the guy you’re going to marry.”
Connie’s reaction to her first visit to the College is mirrored in those of her daughter, Jeanne, and her granddaughter, Lulu.
“My mother wanted very badly for one of her three daughters to go to Bennington, so I did my college tours, and when I got to Bennington, it was a visceral reaction,” said Jeanne. “It was the first school I could envision myself being at.”
Lulu felt similarly about her first time on campus.
“Bennington was the only college I visited,” said Lulu. “When I came, I just knew. I went on a tour with a graduating senior, and I felt that everything she said made sense and was how it should be, without even consciously putting together that I’d been raised with that way of thinking.”
Though a Bennington mindset manifests differently in every student, fearlessness, noted Jeanne, is a common underpinning.
“Bennington students have a certain fearlessness and enthusiasm for everything that is possible,” said Jeanne.
This fearlessness also lends itself to an uninhibited sense of self-direction. During Jeanne’s time at the College, she switched her focus of study from Premed to Literature during her final year. Bennington’s inherently flexible Plan process made this directional shift possible.
“That was when I learned you don’t have to get stuck down paths,” said Jeanne, who spent much of her ensuing career as a copywriter and an artist. Now, she is shifting tracks once again and teaching herself website design.
Bennington became a way of life. It taught me to not be afraid to change things up, reinvent myself.
Jeanne Gorfinkle-Wiley '85
“I have a lot of friends in banking, and when the market contracted, they didn’t know what to do," said Jeanne. "They eventually went back to work in banking after being out for months. I don’t feel as stuck in my career.”
Connie agreed that the College helped her find her place in the world. After studying French literature, she went on to become an arts reporter for the Quincy, MA, daily newspaper The Patriot Ledger. Though now retired, Connie held her staff writing position for thirty years and considered it “the best job in the world.”
“The day I graduated—I’ve never felt like this before or since—I was getting ready in the Commons, and I thought to myself, ‘I wish I were beginning all over again,’” said Connie. “I felt like I became a person at Bennington. The fact that I had the freedom to do what I wanted to do and mentors to guide me—I loved that. It was there that I found my place. I knew what I was going to do with my life.”
Both Connie and Jeanne cited Bennington’s small class sizes and expectation of personal accountability as foundational to their own educations.
During Connie’s time at Bennington, many classes were small enough to be held in the living rooms of the cottages. She recalled an English literature course taught by Howard Nemerov that took place in Swan.
“One of the students in that course lived in Swan,” said Connie. “One day, Howard came in for class and asked where she was. Another student said, ‘She’s probably sleeping.’ So he went up to her room, knocked on her door, and said, ‘Come on out, attend class!’”
“If you went to a class and hadn’t done the reading, it was the students who were upset with you. There was an expectation that you came to contribute, not just sit there,” said Jeanne. “There weren’t grades, but you still cared. You’d even work harder because you’re not told what ‘enough’ is, so it has to be your definition of ‘enough.’ I found I had a higher bar than what I’d been previously told was passable or even excellent.”
As Lulu engages in her own journey through college, she has noticed how she has benefited from being raised with this Bennington mentality.
Over her Field Work Term experiences, Lulu has set up a farmer’s market and run after-school programs in rural West Virginia, built a website for the Committee for a Better New Orleans, and next hopes to travel to Mexico City to work at the Frida Kahlo Museum. Though her interests are wide ranging, her Bennington education has taught her to find the subtle connections between disparate fields.
“For the first time in my life, my education coincides with how I like to work,” said Lulu. “My work here is nonprofit-based, communicative work that is hands-on. I feel autonomous over my education. In my earlier schooling, they didn’t talk about the connections between everything you learn. Here, though, I’ve realized that everything you learn compiles.”
After she graduates, Lulu is interested in applying to divinity school and becoming a Unitarian-Universalist minister. She would also like to continue freelance designing websites.
Though Lulu recognizes that the four years she will spend at Bennington are a relatively short portion of her life, her own experience at the College, along with its shared legacy within her family, has already left an indelible impression on her.
“It’s a special place, and I still feel my mother’s and my grandmother’s energy here,” said Lulu. “My grandmother stayed in Swan, and my mother lived in Bingham while she was here. They are really cool people, and sometimes I wish that I could see them here alongside me.”
By Natalie Redmond, Associate Writer