All posts by Maggie Boccella

Student Engagement and Creative Growth at the Bowers Writers House

Outside of a classroom, finding space for academic enrichment on a college campus can be a difficult task.

Keeping students engaged with new, creative ideas to stimulate their education is no easy endeavor, particularly in a non-threatening space uninhibited by the weight of grades and degrees. This engagement is vital to a student’s growth and development during their higher education experience, and Elizabethtown College has taken it upon themselves to create a space where this kind of learning can be fostered: the Bowers Writers House.

Located just off Cedar Street behind Ober residence hall, the house was opened in the spring of 2010 with the goal of promoting and supporting a culture of “creative curiosity”, according to the college’s website. The space was dedicated to Elizabethtown alumni and community members Kenneth and Rosalie Bowers, and serves to bring a “sense of excitement and enthusiasm for intellectual diversity” to the college’s student body.

Anywhere from eight to twelve scholars visit the Bowers Writers House each semester, hosting a variety of events ranging from film screenings to seminars to readings, depending on their area of expertise. Dr. Jesse Waters, the director of the Writer’s House, asks that each guest “leave their academics outside, and bring into the house what they’re personally and professionally passionate about”, which provides a wide array of subjects and experiences for students to learn from. Over the course of the house’s ten years as part of the Elizabethtown College community, it has hosted over two hundred and eighty visitors for upwards of three hundred and twenty events, covering every discipline and genre of learning offered at the college.

Students and faculty often get an opportunity to participate in events at the house, both as audience members and as participants.

According to English department chair Dr. Matthew Skillen, these events gives students insight into what their career fields look like beyond what they learn in the classroom.

“I think a writer’s house allows them an opportunity to learn more about not only their craft,” Skillen says, “Because we host craft workshops and other engaging activities like that, but they also get to meet people who are doing what they want to do for a living across all career levels and variety of industries. I think it’s a really neat way to see how the skills that you develop here can translate into something really exciting and meaningful after your graduation.”

Each event hosted at the house is split into three parts, offering different levels of engagement with guests for students. Afternoon engagements begin after the completion of a day’s classes (around 4 p.m., according to Waters), and consist of a smaller crowd attending a casual engagement like a craft talk or a hands-on seminar before moving on to have dinner with the guests. This allows students to have a more personal sit-down with guests, before moving on to a more “public-oriented presentation or seminar”, with a larger audience filling the house’s great room.

“Over the ten years we’ve had programming [at the house],” Waters says, “Our attendance numbers show that we fill the house at about a capacity of fifty five percent [for each event]. So on average, we fill the place just over half.”

The house also seeks to make students reconsider their views on certain academic fields through these events, and broaden their horizons to new and exciting opportunities.

“I might have a poet that comes in and talks about their love for chemistry,” Waters says, “So that chemistry students might have an opportunity to say, “You know, I’ve never really cared about poetry, but that’s a chemist who seems to love poems. What might I have missed? Or why is that chemist so excited about poetry?”

Events at the Writers House offer students and faculty the opportunity to have up close and personal experiences with industry professionals.

The house’s goals in challenging students’ ideas align directly with the liberal arts foundation of Elizabethtown College, serving as a space of connection between majors and disciplines to bring students together in their work.

“This is a liberal arts college,” Waters says, “And as you may know, the whole idea of a liberal arts experience is to have an engagement where you have the opportunity to see how all of these genres and disciplines and ideas and areas of thought have a sense of connection. So I try to bring in people at the writer’s house that demonstrate that sense of connection, so that our students have an opportunity to really experience the liberal arts in a place that’s not threatening, where there’s no risk [and] no loss.”

This sense of connection has been fostered significantly since the founding of the house in 2010, and it shows in the way the space has developed and students have benefited from the programming offered. According to Dr. Skillen, a number of artists and writers have become return guests at the house, encouraging students to create a community and a network with professionals invested in their chosen areas of study.

“I came to know about the Writers House shortly after I arrived at Elizabethtown about ten years ago,” he says, “And have just enjoyed seeing how it’s grown into this space that really means a lot to a lot of different people, which I think is exciting.”

Guests have already been invited for the spring semester, and include singers, actors, poets, political scientists, and continuing education graduates presenting on a variety of topics from communications and marketing to how creative writing benefits students in medical school. Programming will continue throughout the semester, all the way up to finals, giving students plenty of time to stop in whenever they can find the time. 

Clashing Ideals: Staging ‘Romeo and Juliet’ at Elizabethtown College

A Shakespearean story performed in an apocalyptic setting would seem as sweet…or would it?

Elizabethtown College’s production of “Romeo and Juliet” features all of the elements one would expect from the classic tale ⁠– star-crossed lovers, epic combat, and a cautionary tale for the ages. The text remains unchanged, but many factors set it apart from the typical college Shakespeare production, including its devastated future world setting.

Notably, the production features a gender-blind cast, a convention often adopted by contemporary theaters presenting Shakespeare. This comes as a result of the college’s population being “roughly sixty percent to two-thirds female”, according to director Dr. Michael Swanson, making it a necessity for certain male roles to be played by females, else the production staff be faced with a lack of actors.

“You could say not having enough men would be a lemon,” said Swanson. “We decided, let’s make lemonade out of that and make the best we can of it. And it’s really kind of fascinating to see the classic Romeo and Juliet scenes with two women.”

This non-traditional casting gives the actors room to experiment with their characters, and has allowed them to bring different interpretations to the table than in traditionally gendered casting. Grace Gibson, a senior English Literature major playing Romeo, sees it as an opportunity to reinterpret her character’s head-over-heels moments as something deeper than simply teenage love.

“Initially I didn’t know whether I was going to be playing Romeo as male and just being a woman playing the male role, or if I could play a female Romeo,” Gibson said. “I got my wish, I get to play female Romeo…and I think that’s just really amazing that I get to portray a queer character in a story that’s very traditional and old, and usually very much heterosexual. And it…adds things to the way I’m playing my character, because I’m playing a sixteen year old queer girl, who is just realizing that she is allowed to like other girls, and that there are other girls who will reciprocate, and so…that is really part of the idolatry of Juliet, and the fact that she is so head over heels immediately.”

Aside from the upside of gender-blind casting, the show also offers students other perks – like the chance to unwind and have fun.

“We actually went around…at our first rehearsal [and] had to say our favorite thing about theater,” said Gibson, “And everyone had these deep reasons like, ‘It helps me forget all of my own struggles,’ and ‘I get to be someone I’m not and find refuge from myself’, and I’m like…not so deep guys! It’s just for fun!”

Kelty Tarvin, a history education major playing Paris, shares similar views on participating in the show.

“Theater is just very fun because you can kind of…go onto stage, be someone who you’re absolutely not, and people will watch you and applaud. And it’s kind of fun.”

Official poster for Elizabethtown Theatre’s production of “Romeo & Juliet”

However, the excitement of an experimental ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is slightly dampened by the knowledge that there may be no more shows performed at the college after this year.

It was announced over the summer that Elizabethtown would be cutting the theater major and minor from its list of educational offerings, citing a lack of interest as the reason for the decision. According to the school, no freshmen declared a theater major during the 2018-2019 school year, having dwindled to nothing from healthy numbers in the past. This decision also means that two full-time theatre professors and two adjunct staff members will lose their jobs at the end of the academic year.

Students of the college, both those participating in “Romeo and Juliet” and otherwise, have expressed concerns over the school’s decision. Many cited the fact that the importance of department goes far beyond simply the education and degrees provided by the theater major and minor.

“It makes me very sad and angry,” said Gibson, “Because these are people…who trained for this…and have built up a community through repeated productions with all these different people, and now they’re basically told that their jobs and what they do at the college isn’t important enough to keep them here. And that just is really terrible, and it’s not what I see based on the work they do. They do fantastic, life-changing work, and the college is just completely devaluing that.”

Students like Tarvin have also lost not only their creative outlet, but their jobs as well.

“It makes me sad,” said Tarvin, “Because all of the people involved with the department are really kind people and I’ve gotten to know them very well over the past year that I’ve been involved with the theater, and personally, obviously, I lost my hobby and my job, and they lost their job[s] too, and it’s kind of sad.”

Many students who participate in the department’s shows are not theater majors, but simply engage with the art because it’s enjoyable for them, and many have expressed that it is not simply the major that is an important part of the campus community.

“One of the reasons I think the administration is missing [in choosing to cut the department],” said Swanson, “Is that we have lots of people in our theater productions who are not theater majors or minors, but people who simply love the art and what it does for them and what it can do for an audience.”

According to Swanson, there are currently no plans in place to continue producing shows at the college once the department is officially eliminated, so students are making the best they can of what may be their final college theater show, and hope that audiences will enjoy the production they’ve worked hard to put on. 

‘Romeo and Juliet’ also stars Delphi Aubrey as Juliet, Logan Crosby as Benvolio/Friar Laurence, and Gavin O’Brien as Mercutio. It runs October 31–November 2nd and November 7–8 at 8 p.m., and November 10 at 2 p.m. Tickets can be purchased at the Tempest Theatre box office or by emailing boxoffice@etown.edu.

Etown Students Worry Over Loss of OISS Position

Fall is a season of change. The leaves shift colors, the air gets chillier, and students go back to school, adjusting or readjusting to their new environments.

Unfortunately for some Elizabethtown College students, however, some of these changes in this year’s fall season season aren’t what they’d been hoping for.

It was recently announced to the public that several changes are being made to the college’s Office of International Students and Scholars. The office is responsible for the educational and emotional support of students attending the college from overseas, whether for a semester or their entire college career. They provide academic support for those international students who require it, and also help solve visa and immigration issues that students may face during their time on campus. Amongst the changes being made to this office is the elimination of Kristi Syrdahl, the Etown faculty member in charge of the office as a whole.

As Director of International Students and Services, Syrdahl was in charge of caring for international students’ needs, ranging in urgency from arranging immigration paperwork and ensuring students are entered into the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System to setting up tutoring services for students. She was the main point of contact for many international students that experienced issues during their time at the college.

The loss of Syrdahl’s position comes as a result of Elizabethtown’s decision to cut several staff positions due to budget cuts. Emma Pile, a junior communications major, confirmed that there is no longer one person in charge of these duties for OISS, but that the work is being split between a group of Elizabethtown faculty members from different student services departments.

“They are merging the diversity office with our office because they think that they don’t need to be two offices,” said Pile. “And they think that they don’t need one person assigned to [specifically the OISS office], so they’re just assigning [that] role to multiple people that have other jobs as well.”

Etown’s 2019 class of international students & OISS employees, including Leo Costello & Emma Pile (back row, second and third from left).

The cuts to staff around campus were announced over the summer, while most students and staff were away from campus. Many student employees relied on public news sources to discover the information, and some students attending classes abroad didn’t find out until they returned to campus this fall. As for the students, they only found out as Syrdahl did.

“Kristi texted us [when she found out],” Pile said. Both she and Leo Costello, another communications major and OISS employee, confirmed that that was the first they heard of Syrdahl’s position being eliminated.

Joni Eisenhauer, Assistant Director of Health Promotion on campus, was given temporary responsibility for the Office, but employees fear that international students are not receiving the support they deserve because one employee is being stretched over multiple positions.

“Joni is great but [she] was kind of forced to take on this role,” Pile said. “She didn’t really have a choice, and she wants to do her best, but she’s really busy with the Bowers’ Center because she’s kind of in charge of that. So, she doesn’t really have as much time or heart to put into the international students…and I feel like the three people we now have [in charge of the Office] don’t understand it at all.”

OISS falls under the jurisdiction of the Student Life Division, who operate on the Elizabethtown campus to “[encourage] personal growth, academic success, appreciation of diversity, and the capacity for life-long learning”, according to the college’s website. In addition to Eisenhauer, each of the three faculty members in the Division are now part of the group responsible for maintaining OISS. Wetown reached out to the Division, but they formally declined to comment.

Going forward, OISS employees hope that, if the position cannot be reinstated, then some semblance of knowledge be passed to one person who can be used as a reference point by future international students to lessen the sense of confusion within the Office.

“I think they would have to educate at least one of these people,” said Costello. “The people in charge need to know about the paperwork and about [the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System] because we have had students go to these people and they don’t know what to do, and that’s a problem for the students, because then they don’t really have anyone to go to.”

Arts & the Armistice

Elizabethtown College sponsored a memorial event the weekend of Veterans’ Day, featuring a poster exhibition and a live performance to commemorate veterans’ memories. The exhibition features images of women in World War One, as depicted by wartime posters.

The performance and the exhibition were created in conjunction to celebrate the one hundredth anniversary of the armistice that ended World War One, on November 11th, 1918.

The performance occurred on the night of the anniversary, Sunday, November 11th. It featured music and poetry written during World War One. Both students and faculty were involved in varying capacities.  Sophomore music major Sarah Peppe spoke to us about her involvement in the program.

“I’m playing a piece called “The Lark Ascending” by Ralph Von Williams,” she said, “And I’m playing it on violin. It has ties to World War One. He wrote it before being drafted into World War One, and completed it when he came back.”

Participants were deeply affected by their exposure to the work of veterans and their families, even without a personal connection to the war.

“It was a really amazing experience, just being able to read someone else’s words and kind of put my own emotions into them,” said Abigail Spessard, a junior who read two of Charlotte Mew’s poems for the program. “And I think that this opportunity, while I may not have a very close personal connection to it, I do know a lot of people that do, so it’s kind of like, my feelings mixed with theirs.”

In Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, Margaret Boccella, Wetown.org.

Parties Over Parish Doughnuts

Part of the Chinese auction at St. Marcellus’s calendar party.

To view the news package, click here.

Some churches may have doughnuts on Sunday, but St. Marcellus Parish does things a bit differently.

Each year, they host a “calendar party”, a luncheon and benefit held in the church’s reception hall. Each of the party’s twelve tables represents a different month, with each month having a different theme. This year’s themes ranged from Mardi Gras in February to National Cupcake Month in April.

The party also features a Chinese auction, with prize baskets donated by various parish members.

The Saint Marcellus Parish calendar party has been going on for fourteen consecutive years, and calendar parties like it have slowly become more popular in and around Green County, Pennsylvania.

The benefit raises money for the parish’s Ladies’ Guild, a group that keeps up the church’s sense of community. But it’s more than just that – many see it as an opportunity to bring families together.

“I always make my daughter do it with me,” says Rebecca Kuhns, a parishioner and member of the Ladies’ Guild. “And then we throw in a few grandkids to help too.”

Many parish members look forward to the party every year, even some of the younger ones.

“It’s a lot of fun,” says Jonathan Boccella, a parishioner currently in high school. “It’s kind of a commotion sometimes, but it’s a good way of having a community and being active and having fun.”

In Greene County, Pennsylvania, Margaret Boccella, Wetown.org.