At a time when students and their parents are looking to institutions of higher education for the highest immediate return on investment—and selecting fields of study accordingly—one donor couple is helping to ensure that students can still afford to pursue their passions with a major in the humanities. Douglas Smith ’85 and Stephanie Ellis-Smith have established the Rockhaven Scholarship Fund to benefit undergraduate students from Vermont with financial need and academic merit who are pursuing a degree in the humanities. The commitment represents the largest gift to an endowed scholarship for students in the humanities in the history of the College of Arts and Sciences.
“I’m very proud that UVM is working hard under President Garimella’s leadership to control the cost of attendance and to amplify UVM’s impact on our Vermont community,” said College of Arts and Sciences Dean William Falls. “This scholarship advances both of those efforts.”
The Rockhaven Scholarship, named in recognition of a place of natural beauty in the San Juan Islands near the couple’s home in Seattle, will provide significant annual support to 10-20 Vermont students studying disciplines like philosophy, religion, languages and literatures, linguistics, history, and the arts.
Douglas and Stephanie were motivated to make the gift when they saw students and their families struggling to fund higher education as the COVID-19 pandemic forced many of them out of work. They believe, especially in this climate, that the value and purpose of the humanities have been called into question. They remain committed to the notion that the humanities ought to be at the core of any serious education, even those focused on science and technology, “not only for the insights they afford into the human experience and the intellectual skills they develop, skills that are necessary to a healthy democracy but also for the sheer pleasure they provide.”
“Enrollment in the humanities has declined nationwide since the recession of 2010. UVM has not been immune to this decline, seeing a 40% reduction of students majoring in the humanities,” said Dean Falls. “The decline stems from the misbelief that a major in the humanities does not prepare one for a career. In truth, all liberal arts majors are a piece of the broad liberal arts education that fully prepares students for any career they choose.”
For Douglas and Stephanie, the value proposition is clear. They view the study of human civilization and culture as essential to fostering a society of independent, critical thinkers. They credit the humanities not only for leading them to successful and fulfilling careers but for leading them to one another—they met in a French language course at UCLA. Since then, they have spent their lives committed to the arts and letters. And they can both wax poetic about the value the humanities have brought to them individually. Douglas, a serious Russophile, says he immediately fell in love with “this strange-looking language, with these weird sounds,” in his first-ever Russian class at UVM. Stephanie, who was originally following a pre-med track, says she just couldn’t stop signing up for humanities courses as an undergraduate at UCLA and finally made room for a second major.
Stephanie, now a philanthropic advisor, has also worked as the creator of an arts organization, a fine arts researcher, and a Washington State Arts Commissioner. She earned degrees in biochemistry and English from UCLA.
Douglas, a native Minnesotan, graduated summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa with a double major in German and Russian from the University of Vermont and earned a doctorate in history at UCLA. He is an internationally-acclaimed historian and translator, and author of six books on Russia. He is the recipient of numerous awards and distinctions, including a Guggenheim fellowship, Fulbright scholarship, and a residency at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Study Center.
“We were both fortunate to be born into families that not only stressed the importance of learning but also had the resources to support it,” says Douglas. “What is more, our families ascribed to a broad vision of what education means and encouraged us to follow our interests wherever they led without thought to a future vocation or supposed usefulness.”
“Both Stephanie and I worry that there's been this huge shift in how people conceive of education as more vocational training than a broader educational exploration of what it means to be human, what it means to know this world that we inhabit and how it got this way—a much broader, deeper understanding of what education's goal and purpose should be. That said, we recognize that higher education gets more and more expensive. It gets more and more out of reach for a lot of people.”
In establishing this scholarship fund, Douglas and Stephanie sought to eliminate some of the calculus that goes into choosing a field of study that sparks interest and curiosity, and intellectual passion versus one that is perceived as more “practical” and likely to lead to a high-paying job. They feel that such utilitarianism, with students searching for an immediate pay-off, is both short-sighted and ultimately detrimental to the individual and society at large. Douglas lectures widely in the United States, Britain, and Europe, and is occasionally asked to speak to student groups. He likes to bring along an article from the Wall Street Journal that tracks average salaries based on college major from one year out of college, to 10 years, to 20, and so on. “What all the studies show is that, yes, right out of the gate, that anthropology major, English major, French literature major is not going to earn what that engineering major will get,” he says. “But if you project out over a few decades, it all kind of comes out in the wash.” Indeed, students earning degrees in liberal arts fields at UVM have gone on to establish successful careers in law, diplomacy, higher education, medicine, science, ecology, public service, writing and publishing, and beyond.
“The idea that you are setting yourself up for a life of penury if you study the humanities, is simply not borne out by the facts,” says Douglas. “I think a truly broad training, education in the humanities, allows you to pivot and go in so many different directions, because we're all going to be learning new things throughout our life. It's not like we're just going to learn something in college and then go out and apply it for the rest of our lives. We're always going to be growing and developing and adding new bits of knowledge and skills.”
“I believe you can choose whatever major interests you,” adds Stephanie. “It's literally four years of your life. What you're learning is how to learn. It is this testament to being able to, not just learn actual things, but how to learn, how to work with people, how to read people, to understand motivations. The best education, whichever major someone chooses, teaches you how to train your brain to think about the world.”
Douglas and Stephanie hope, through this scholarship, to provide this type of education to generations of UVM students who might not otherwise be able to afford it. The Rockhaven Scholarship will make available in perpetuity the rigorous academic inquiry into humankind that is essential to producing the sort of advanced citizenship necessary to meet the highest aspirations we have for ourselves, our nation, and our world.
“This gift advances two critical objectives for the College of Arts and Sciences and for UVM: increasing access to our excellent education and advancing the liberal arts, of which humanities are at the core,” said Dean Falls. “Douglas and Stephanie are incredibly generous and utterly committed to ensuring that students have access to in-depth study in humanities and the liberal arts, which is so critical for our time.”
Fundraising for the College of Arts and Sciences is a major focus for the University of Vermont Foundation, a nonprofit corporation established to secure and manage private support for the benefit of the University of Vermont. Gifts like this one play a vital role in supporting student success and further the aims of the Student Opportunity, Access, and Recruitment (SOAR) Initiative, a $150 million fundraising effort to support undergraduate scholarships and graduate fellowships at UVM. To learn more about the SOAR initiative, please visit http://go.uvm.edu/soar.
photo credit: Sarah Flotard ’96