Steady as She Goes
Stalwart Champlain College staff member Shelli Goldsweig steps up to the challenge of a long, successful career
Article by Erik Esckilsen
Photography by Kathleen Landwehrle
The first course that Shelli Goldsweig taught at Champlain College in the mid- 1970s —Adjustment Psychology—is no longer offered. In some ways, however, that course topic has come to describe the collective mindset of the College community in the intervening years. Perhaps no member of that community has known the experience of adapting one’s thinking to new challenges as intimately as Goldsweig has. Over more than three decades of service to the institution, she has responded to profound shifts in the College’s direction by redefining her role on that journey—first as an instructor, then as a counselor, then as director of First Year Seminar, and now as director of the Life Experience & Action Dimension program, aka LEAD. In each new position, she has helped students experience life and learning to the fullest through high-quality programs tailored to their needs.
The latest of these initiatives, LEAD, launched in fall 2008, finds Goldsweig in the driver’s seat of arguably the most ambitious effort to prepare students for life beyond graduation that Champlain College has ever seen (see “Life Lessons”). While LEAD is truly something different—College President David Finney calls it “cutting edge”—it also illuminates a rare constant in a Champlain era marked by change: Goldsweig’s uncommon commitment to making a difference in the lives of others.
“She’s direct, she’s honest, she’s not afraid to confront a challenge. She’s learning new stuff all the time, and she’s not afraid to ask if she doesn’t know something. She has that self-confidence. She’s comfortable in her own skin. She’s happy to work with a group, and she likes to be the boss. She’s not afraid to take on responsibility.” —Carol Moran-Brown, director of Counseling & International Student Services
BACK TO THE LAND
Were Goldsweig less adaptable, she may have never reached Vermont, let alone Champlain College. A New York City native who grew up on the 14th floor of an apartment building, she remembers summer visits to Sackett Lake, New York, where the simple ability to “walk out of the house without taking an elevator” piqued her youthful interest in a more rustic way of life. She leaped into that life in the early 1970s when she left her job teaching elementary school in Harlem so that she and husband Arthur could move to Vermont. Their first residence was a communal home in Monkton dubbed Pepperland, which they shared with five near complete strangers.
“Pepperland was great,” Goldsweig recalls. “None of us had family up here. We were all from other places. It became sort of like family. I think living together is a really wonderful way to get to know someone.” Little did she know that helping young people live harmoniously together would become part of her job through LEAD. Goldsweig’s urban roots notwithstanding, she wasn’t altogether surprised by her easy adjustment to Vermont life. “I always operated a little slower than New York,” she says. “I’d always get stuck in the revolving door. I’d often go around a second time because I couldn’t get out in time…the pace of Vermont suited me.” On snowy mornings, it’s not uncommon for her to make Nordic ski tracks before heading to campus for work.
BACK TO BASICS
While working as an adjunct instructor at Champlain College, Goldsweig, who had earned her undergraduate degree from City College of New York, completed her master’s degree in counseling at the University of Vermont. This set the stage for a full-time position at Champlain as a counselor in 1977. C. Bader Brouilette was the College president at the time. Goldsweig would see him succeeded by three others—Robert A. Skiff, Roger H. Perry, and Finney—in her own tenure.
Those early years were different times, recalls Director of Counseling & International Student Services Carol Moran-Brown, who, at Goldsweig’s suggestion, became a counselor at Champlain in 1980. Moran- Brown remembers gleefully the plays that she and Goldsweig cowrote as part of alcohol-awareness and similar programs. She also remembers a colleague determined to get the best performance from herself and her colleagues. “I just have so much respect for her,” Moran-Brown says. “She has incredibly high standards that she holds herself to, that she holds the people who work with her to, as well. It’s the quality of the product that’s important to her—and the people.”
While the two women set about creating counseling services at Champlain College—a concept that, Moran- Brown says, was still rather new at the institution back then—Goldsweig expanded her role to encompass student tutoring services. Moran-Brown, in turn, had assumed responsibility for supporting the school’s international students, which reached a peak of 100 or so in its heyday. The time for penning skits may have passed, but Goldsweig and Moran-Brown continued to benefit from a close collaboration. Moran-Brown praises her colleague’s “can-do attitude” and, again, her expectation of quality work from students in her charge. “There was an intense, selection process” for peer tutors, Moran-Brown says, “because Shelli believed in quality. She wanted to make sure that we got the best of the best.”
Tutoring services were gradually phased out of the Student Life office and into the academic divisions. Goldsweig wasted not a moment in creating a new opportunity to enrich students’ Champlain experience, particularly in their critical first year. Her new initiative was called Freshman Focus, later First-Year Seminar, and it functioned as a kind of semester-long academic orientation, introduction to co-curricular activities, and study skills curriculum. The program tapped Goldsweig’s combined interests in learning and living in a manner responsive to students’ needs. “The student is whole,” she says, “and it seems that the way we educate them needs to involve that collaboration as well.”
Of all of her initiatives, however, the one of which Goldsweig says she is proudest is the Community Book Program (CBP). Launched in 1999, the CBP invited all incoming first-year students to read a common book, the program’s debut title being Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies. A day of workshops related to the novel’s themes and an author visit to campus created an opportunity for the entire campus community—and the broader local community as well—to engage in conversations inspired by a thought-provoking literary work. Programs like Champlain’s CBP had become popular at colleges and universities across the country, and Goldsweig and Professor Jim Ellefson sought to tap Champlain’s latent potential for such a collective intellectual experience.
The program was a resounding success. “The fact that we got a whole community interested in a book and an author, from students to faculty to staff, was a pretty wonderful thing,” Goldsweig says. Today, 10 years and 10 community books later, the program is still going strong (see “Community Book Program Marks a Decade”).
BACK TO THE FUTURE
Goldsweig recently stepped down as co-chair of the CBP to focus her energies on LEAD. In some respects, this bold, new initiative is a culmination of several programs that she spearheaded over the years. This sense of her work coming full circle is evident in the highly coincidental fact that Goldsweig reports directly to Assistant Vice President of Student Life Leslie Averill, whose own history with Champlain College began when Goldsweig hired her to teach First-Year Seminar in 200TK. While Averill is now in the supervisor’s role, her earliest impressions of Goldsweig inform their working relationship. “I remember a very professional woman who was a little scary because she demanded such a high quality of work and performance, but I loved that about her,” Averill says of her first encounters with Goldsweig. “I still look up to Shelli…Regularly, I call upon her as a mentor. It’s a hard balance because she does report to me, but I view it more as just a respectful relationship. She respects the expectations of the role that I’m in, and I respect not only her role but the years of wisdom that she brings to every meeting she attends.”
She has seen Champlain College grow from a two-year institution to a four-year school offering bachelor’s degrees and four online master’s degrees. She has worked with four College presidents—C. Bader Brouilette, Robert Skiff, Roger Perry, and David Finney. Through each major phase of the College’s evolution, she has transformed her role to help Champlain reach its potential. That’s Shelli Goldsweig, director of the Life Experience & Action Dimension program, aka LEAD.
Without question, Goldsweig’s depth of experience meshes well with LEAD’s new goals. Like Freshman Focus/First-Year Seminar, LEAD enables her to work not only with students on a range of topics critical to their academic and career success, but also with young colleagues with early professional experience. It’s an opportunity she clearly relishes. “Eighteen-year-olds are wonderful. They’re a little young, and they’re works in progress, in a good way,” she says. “But when you have the opportunity to work with people between the ages of 25 and 30, you get people who are a little more established, have a little better sense of who they are, but with all that youthful optimism and enthusiasm.”
“When you work with Shelli, you’re going to have a blue-collar experience. You’re going to get your hands dirty, and you’re going to have to roll up your sleeves.” —Professor Jim Ellefson, cofounder with Goldsweig of the Community Book Program
While Goldsweig has been equally comfortable walking in step with Vermont and sprinting along with Champlain College, she acknowledges becoming “really antsy” if she isn’t able to venture out into the wider world on a regular basis. The travel bug first bit her as a recent college grad, when she spent several weeks touring Europe on her own. Since then, she and her husband have traveled abroad extensively, visiting such destinations as Argentina, the Canadian Rockies, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, India, Israel, Nepal, Peru, and Switzerland. The Goldsweigs’ son Seth, 32, and his family prompt visits to Toronto, which is also home to two grandchildren. Son Ian, 29, leads them back to New York City from time to time.
Seizing the opportunity to travel widely and experience the world makes Goldsweig a good role model for current Champlain College students at a time when the institution is internationalizing its curriculum and encouraging study abroad (see “Champlain Wins Award for International Education”).
Perhaps even more worthy of emulation, however, is the appreciation Goldsweig has for her good fortune, an appreciation that manifests in her signature drive to help others less fortunate. For the past three years, Goldsweig has been working as a volunteer with the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program, helping a Somalian family adjust to life in Burlington. What began as a tutoring assignment has evolved into something more like a friendship as she transports family members to dental appointments, takes the children to the movies, and makes herself available for counsel and support. She recently took one family member on his first college visits. The experience has been moving for Goldsweig, who has been struck not so much by the differences in this devout Muslim family and her own, but, rather, by what they have in common. “It’s really amazing to me how someone could come from such a different culture, and you could feel such a commonality with them. I love my contact with them,” she says. “I learn a lot from that family.”
Naturally, the experience inspires reflection on the route her own family has traveled—and how this has shaped who she is today. “That feeling of contributing to something I believe in or making even a small difference in someone’s life, has always been important,” she says. “I am lucky to come from a family where we never felt that we lacked in anything—not because we were rich, but because my parents always were satisfied with what they had and felt very fortunate. So we were always taught the importance of giving back and making the rest of the world a little better. I like to think that, in some way, I’ve made a contribution to Champlain and all the good it has done for students. And I guess if you can look back at a career and feel that way, you are pretty lucky.”
Some 30 or so graduating classes who have crossed paths with Goldsweig between the Hill and their horizons can attest to who has been the luckiest in this arrangement. As Ellefson says of his colleague, “She has uplifted so many young people here and given them opportunities that they never ever would’ve imagined having.”
With LEAD, one of the opportunities squarely within Goldsweig’s purview is the opportunity to succeed in life after graduation. As her own story illustrates, adaptability and life skills can improve one’s chances at attaining goals. But striving to help others reach theirs makes the journey most rewarding.