An alum recently told us that he had just learned that Alexander Twilight—the first black person in America to receive a college degree—earned his degree from Middlebury in 1823. He wanted to know why we don’t speak more frequently about this amazing man and this noteworthy historical fact.
His question made me think—not only about Alexander Twilight but also about a contemporary of his, Emma Willard. Even if you don’t know much about these two people, their legacies of fierce independence and determination have been woven into our collective consciousness and have helped form our institutional character. They continue to shape us today, more than 188 years later.
Twilight didn’t see boundaries to his capabilities or his place in society. He didn’t let other people’s views of what he should be deter him. When he thought something needed to happen, he put himself front and center to make it happen—beginning with his determination to get an education.
For 12 years, beginning at the age of eight, he worked as a farm laborer, possibly as an indentured servant; yet, he found a way to learn to read, write, and do math. He finally enrolled in grammar school at the age of 20 and later entered Middlebury as a junior because he had completed two years of college-level work by then. Twilight continued on as a gifted educator, minister, and legislator, becoming a significant force for change in his community. Stories about him refer to his “iron will,” a quality we prize at Middlebury.
Emma Willard ran a women’s school in her home very near the College. Her nephew attended Middlebury, and as she learned about the things he was studying, she realized that her own students, indeed women everywhere, were being shortchanged because they were not taught “higher subjects,” such as mathematics.
When Willard asked permission for her students to audit some classes, she was flatly refused. So, with fierce determination to do what she believed was necessary, she wrote a treatise, “A Plan for Improving Female Education,” which was read by many power makers of her day, including President Monroe, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams.
It induced New York’s governor to invite her to open a school there; Willard changed women’s education forever.
Both Willard and Twilight had an appetite for challenging the norm. As an institution, we value that quality and expect it of ourselves. Indeed, many Middlebury students today follow in their path—of getting things done regardless of the vessel they inhabit, male, female, black, white, or whatever it might be. The world of the 21st century requires nothing less.
If Alexander Twilight and Emma Willard, two people so marginalized on so many levels, could imagine themselves as transcending the boundaries of what society expected back then, then any Middlebury student today can do the same. Why not tap into their spirit?
What’s your internal drive? Where do you hesitate to go, intellectually, socially, and culturally? What would happen if you just decided to do it? (To comment, click on “comments,” directly beneath the post title.)