By Marla Gagne
Throughout the years, thousands of alumni have graduated from Providence College and witnessed the campus transform. Some of those alumni dedicated to education and the mission of PC have returned to campus to continue to guide new generations of students. As PC charges into a new era, here are some of the voices from its past.
In 1971, Providence College was a different campus. Every student was male, mass was held at Guzman Chapel, about 75 percent of students commuted, and the notorious Development of Western Civilization program was just being created.
“It was a schizophrenic class,” says Dr. Raymond Sickinger ’71, chairperson and professor of the history department. As he looks back on his time at PC, he recalls that it was a great time of change, both on campus and across the country.
Dr. Sickinger grew up locally and attended La Salle Academy with now Rhode Island Senator, Jack Reed. The dream of going to college was not always financially possible, but became a reality after he graduated as valedictorian, securing a full ride to PC.
The early 1970s was the “era of the coffeehouses.” Dr. Sickinger played coffeehouses in Rhode Island and New York and was even roped in by Fr. Paul Philibert, O.P. ’58, to play guitar during mass. Dr. Sickinger said it was a “subtle way that kept me close to the Catholic Church,” carrying on the Dominican tradition of really looking out for the individual student. Dr. Sickinger also recalls sitting on the steps of Aquinas Hall as the whole school was shut down to allow students to protest the Vietnam War.
He would later return to PC after graduating from the University of Notre Dame. Upon his return, he saw a co-ed campus and DWC coming to life, a program he had input in as a student.
Looking back, Dr. Sickinger confidently believes that if “[PC] had not gone co-ed, it probably wouldn’t exist today.” This “right decision at the right time” allowed women to bring a new perspective to each class, especially as historians began to recognize women’s influence in history.
As for DWC, he believes DWC has “made [him] a better teacher and historian.” Civ has allowed students and professors to see the overlap of different disciplines, focusing not just on history but literature, philosophy, and theology as well. Students also begin to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the Western culture. Only by “understanding our own culture” can students “understand other cultures.”
Dr. Sickinger continues to watch the school transform and notes how alumni are “absolutely floored” when they return. He believes the College will continue to move in the right direction as long as they “don’t lose the liberal arts foundation” that has allowed PC to be a unique and thriving college
Before Wanda Ingram, senior associate dean of undergraduate studies and freshman class dean, came to PC, it was still all men and majority white. A self-labeled military brat, Ingram was located at a Newport base and looking at local colleges like Worchester and Brown University. But after some persuasion from a PC alum and high school guidance counselor, she attended PC.
Ingram recalls often standing out wherever she went, being part of the first class of women and a woman of color. She recalls in that first year “there was no mixing of genders at all.” Female students were located in Aquinas, also the home to DWC, and any males, including fathers, could not move past the lobby.
Racism was something that Ingram faced at the time and often just “dealt with it.” With only about 12 women of color on campus, she was constantly being watched. She recalls experiences where some students, professors, and Friars would tell her she did not belong here and assumed was on scholarship.
A great source of her support and close relationship came from fellow students of color and older African American men, her so-called “older brothers.” They formed a tight community and would have each others’ backs through the ups and downs of school.
Looking at PC today, Ingram sees the beautiful transformation of the campus and the continued success of students and alumni. In reaction to recent protests on campus and across the country, Ingram says she is “so sad to be seeing the same things all over again,” but she has great hope that everyone will continue to do the work that needs to be done with time and patience.
For Dr. John Breen ’81, the chairperson and professor of the chemistry department, coming to PC was not something that happened by chance—it was in the family. His father, John J. Breen ’47, taught in the business department for 46 years. With free tuition, Dr. Breen took advantage of the great deal and attended PC as a commuter student.
Dr. Breen found a home with the PC Men’s Track and Cross-Country Team, finding them to be his main social circle on campus. He also experienced DWC in its original form when it was five days a week for 50 minutes and four semesters with seminars thrown in throughout the semester.
Dr. Breen recalls, “It was hard to get an A, but with a reasonable effort B and B+ grades were achievable.” He kindly remembers two of his favorite professors, Professor Delesanta and Professor Grace, but also the tough freshman exams. Over 200 students were in Harkin’s auditorium where they faced a 23 page narrative with 164 fill in the blanks. People just started to give up and leave after three hours. But he believes “Civ has come a long way from that and is now a course where connections between ideas, literaryworks, and historical events are made and students are asked to write and re-write papers demonstrating that they recognize the importance of these connections.”
After working in Indiana for 10 years, Dr. Breen’s wife was tired of living out west and wanted to move back to New England. After some job searching, he discovered PC had a spot for a chemist open. “I can say I am very happy we made the move and I have never looked back.”
Every new academic year, Dr. Breen is excited to be back at PC to see a new class of students. “I like the ‘spring like’ feel I get every fall when the campus comes alive again with students and the new freshman class arrives.” He also is excited to continue to “learn new things about chemistry, matter, etc. and I get to do that as I continually change my upper level courses.”
As Dr. Breen thinks back on his own experience and PC today, he wants the College to be a “safe and supportive environment” and a place that everyone can “look fondly back on their time at PC as being central to their growth into adulthood. “