The Colgate Scene
September 2007

"Passion for the Climb" — it's what exemplifies the spirit of Colgate people. You share a thirst for a life of accomplishment and the will to do things right. In academic, professional, community, and personal endeavors, you relish the effort, the process, the journey, and care deeply about how you lead your lives, as much as you care about reaching the top.

We know there are countless ways in which the "passion for the climb" manifests itself in Colgate alumni, faculty, staff, and students. As the university embarks on its "Passion for the Climb" campaign, we wish to build a collection of these stories.

Our writing tips and guidelines are posted online. Send submissions to: Please put "Passion for the Climb essay" in the subject line and include your daytime phone number and e-mail address. Although electronic submission is preferred, you can also send typed essays, double-spaced, to: "Passion for the Climb" c/o The Colgate Scene; 13 Oak Drive, Hamilton, N.Y. 13346.

We look forward to reading your essay! Every essay we receive will be read and considered for publication. If your essay is selected, we will contact you.

Lisa Bernier Dubreuil '89 and her husband, Tom, live in Bethlehem, Pa., with their son, Jack, 7. When Jack was little, Lisa's favorite book to read to him was Tell Me Again About the Night I Was Born by Jamie Lee Curtis. "It is a wonderful adoption story that closely matches ours," she explained. Lisa is senior associate director of admissions at Lehigh University. [Photos by Timothy D. Sofranko]

I am, for the most part, an ordinary person. I have a job that I enjoy a great deal, and I am so very proud of my home and family. I love to run (slowly) and to sing (loudly). I am happy with my life.

But I also have a strong drive, an unwillingness to give up until I've explored every option, and a belief that I am capable of convincing, doing, being (and any other action word you want to insert) whatever I set out to do. That has much to do with my experience at Colgate, and this is the story of how that confidence brought into my life the most precious gift I will ever receive.

See Also:

All essays in this series

Colgate was a "reach" school for me. Everyone told me how fortunate I was to be admitted. I took that insecurity with me into the first part of my educational journey. I cringed going into a classroom, convinced that most of the students were smarter, more informed, and more intellectual than I. As a consequence, I was tentative in all aspects of my studies.

But several professors changed this self-perception early on. Getting one of my first papers back in my first-year seminar, it wasn't the "B" I received, but the professor's comment, "You have potential for `A' work," that thrilled me beyond words. Education professor Kay Johnston continued to help me find my voice. Because she believed in my abilities, I gained confidence in my writing, my critical thinking skills, and most important, the belief that my thoughts and ideas were equal to those of others in my class.

My husband and I met and fell in love on Colgate's campus five years after I graduated. I had come back to work in the admission office. Tom, then director of fraternity and sorority affairs, asked me to lunch under the guise of taking sorority alumnae to lunch. (He still argues that he was just doing his job, but I beg to differ — he dug me.)

We dated, got engaged, and were married a year later. Eventually, we began to talk about having children. At first, trying was fun. Then it was not. After about a year, we decided to see an infertility specialist, who put us through a series of tests. Most were uncomfortable, embarrassing, intrusive, and sometimes painful. We learned terms that we never wanted to know, like "laparoscopy," "endometriosis," "thin uterine lining," and "intrauterine insemination." I took a drug called Clomid to encourage egg growth, and then received shots of gonadotropins in my rear (done by my husband — talk about romantic!) to improve the quality of my eggs. It wasn't working.

Hearing about friends becoming pregnant the "normal" way, and seeing babies on commercials and at parties brought us to tears. It was an excruciating time for both of us, and in many ways it can be a private pain. It felt like we were losing a baby every month I didn't become pregnant.

But then one morning, we had an epiphany. Tom and I talked about what it was that we really wanted. We simply wanted to be parents. I am not making light of coming to terms with the fact that I might never grow a biological baby in my belly. But we knew that it wasn't a question of "if" we were going to be parents, but "how" we were going to do it.

Become parents we did. We researched adoption laws and adoptive-friendly states. We studied the challenges of adoption in general. We selected an agency that allows the birth mother to choose the family. We waited. After what seemed like an eternity (it was only three months), we were chosen by a courageous young woman who knew she wasn't ready to be a parent. I could not believe it when she thanked me, although we were the ones benefiting from her incredible generosity. I can call myself a mother because of her.

Because I bring my experience at Colgate into every aspect of my life, I am certain that I can accomplish whatever I choose to strive for. I am a "go to" person for getting things accomplished. I know how to navigate challenges. I am a strong communicator, a great friend, and I am an extraordinary mother. I'm not the fastest of runners yet, but I'm a Colgate grad, right?

As I write this, I'm looking at a picture of my son waiting for the bus on his first day of kindergarten. I wish for him the confidence and empowerment that I found through my Colgate experience.

Biology professor Frank Frey studies how variation in plant sex affects the evolution of floral traits. The ginkgo is his favorite tree, he said: "The only living representative of a group of plants dating back to the Permian, it was thought to be extinct, but cultivation by Buddhist monks in Asia kept it around. Individual trees live for a really long time — estimates range from 1,000 to 3,500 years. Several trees within 1,000 meters of the atomic blast at Hiroshima survived and are alive today!"

Do you remember when it happened? It might have been the first day of class. When, having trudged up the hill in the early morning light, with the sound of last night's snow crunching under your feet, a warm coffee in your hand, and snow gently falling from the trees, you arrived in my class for the first time, a complex web of emotions coursing through your veins. You were anxious and eager to see the syllabus, curious to see who your classmates would be, nervous to meet me, and secretly wondering if you had what it took to succeed in my class. But you were absolutely energized and ready to embark on our journey together. Then, in what seemed like a few seconds, the day's class was already over and you emerged from being completely immersed in the strange world of plants with that indescribable feeling in your head and in your heart. You couldn't put your finger on it, but it kept you warm as you walked through the snow to your next class.

Maybe it was that day you started doing research. We walked into my lab together and were met with a flurry of activity and excitement. Seniors, juniors, sophomores, and first-year students were crossing plants, collecting floral scents with a strange-looking apparatus, extracting the most colorful pigments you had ever seen, running DNA gels, setting up experiments in the growth chamber, looking at data together, and drawing out ideas on our whiteboard. Everything stopped when we walked in, someone turned down the music on the stereo, and everyone said hello. All those eyes were locked on to your every move. I sat off to the side, and then it happened. Someone asked you what your project was. For a moment, time seemed to stand still. Then, while you were describing your innovative, original ideas to all those new faces, you started to feel it. Somewhere deep inside, you actually felt the spark. I could tell. It caught you off guard at first and was perhaps a little scary, but I wasn't worried because you were enjoying every second, seemingly dancing with the moment.

It might also have been that day after practice. Do you remember that incredible evening on Tyler's Field? It was early October. I was on the sidelines watching your coach put everyone through drills in preparation for the weekend's match, and it was pouring. There was no thunder, lightning, or wind, but it was as if someone had moved Taylor Lake directly above the turf and decided to empty it on our heads. As the rain played in the lights, the rush of water that followed your stick when you took a shot was incredible. The goalie not only had to try to block your shot, but also avoid the oncoming tidal wave. She was unsuccessful on both counts. After the team cheer to close practice, you asked if we could talk about concentration options. We walked through an inch of water to sit on a side bench, and as the rain pummeled us and the lacrosse team took the field for practice, it happened. As you described your love of two subjects in the social sciences and the humanities, and you came to the realization that it was actually possible to concentrate in both, still play field hockey, study abroad junior year, and have the time for your philanthropic activities, it was as if it stopped raining.

Of course it hadn't. We must have looked a strange sight, two waterlogged people deep in conversation, seemingly unaware of their surroundings. That hour passed in minutes, and I thought I saw the rain actually bend around you as you headed back to the locker room.

I remember all of these moments and countless others. And I want to thank you for the privilege of sharing with me the day you discovered your academic passion. To me, there is no greater moment than when a student realizes the intellectual interests that send shock waves through their body. Nothing is more awe-inspiring than witnessing the instant when that spark takes hold and watching the transformation begin.

This is my passion.

Recipient of the Jonathan H. Kistler Memorial Prize in English and a Charles A. Dana Scholar, Natalie Breitbach '07 graduated summa cum laude with high honors in English and distinction in the Liberal Arts Core Curriculum. She accepted a position in the editorial department of Pearson Longman in New York City and is seeking volunteer opportunities with a human rights organization.

I've taken several courses that prompted me to use the phrase, "This class is a nightmare." But Peter Balakian's Core Distinction course Modern Genocide and Holocaust: History, Witness, and Denial literally gave me nightmares.

I would do some of the reading assignments before going to bed at night, but the sheer cruelty and brutality described in the accounts we read of the Armenian Genocide and the Holocaust were so horrifying that they disrupted my sleep. Before a month had gone by, I realized that this was not only the most interesting, but also the most important, class I had ever taken.

The fact that human beings could do these things to each other — that one group of people would attempt to so viciously erase another from the face of the earth — was incomprehensible. Yet at the same time, it seemed to me a phenomenon that was of the utmost importance to try to understand because it spoke to the very depths of the human psyche. The terrifying fact that had suddenly become clear to me was that many of the perpetrators of atrocities such as the Holocaust were ordinary people, not that different from me, who had been caught up in an extraordinary and horrific campaign of destruction.

The obvious question haunted me: How could this happen? To try to explain the fact that human beings have violently taken the lives of more than 100 million of their own in the past century is by nature a paradoxical attempt to speak of the unspeakable, to try to bring to light what can only be described as the darkest part of the human soul.

"The worst thing that happened to the survivors is that the world did not learn a lesson," concentration camp survivor Helen Sperling told us during her visit to Colgate last November. And the thoughts spun through my head: it is patently, obviously, glaringly true. More than half a century has gone by, and still genocides are happening while the rest of the world watches. We have become voyeurs. We curl up in our living rooms and watch reality television shows and the nightly world news in one sitting, observing the actions of others without questioning how they intersect with our own. To do nothing is as much a choice as to do something: we are the bystanders, we are overwhelmed, we are responsible. We think that we are safe, that these things could never happen to us, that they could not happen here (wherever we are), but these, too, have been the thoughts of each group of people to whom it did happen.

What if. What if. The earth rolls forward in space and time and we forget, we tell ourselves that it could never happen again, and it happens, it keeps happening, and we again tell ourselves that it could never happen again, even while it is happening. How can these things be happening?

I have the incredible privilege of being a person who writes papers about why the North won the Civil War and what the literary criticism says about the novels of Henry James. These are the things I care about. I can care about them because I am not worried about being killed or losing my family. I am not starving. I am not mentally or physically anguished. My very existence makes me a bystander; I am complicit in a crime; I have been found guilty. We have not forgotten the Holocaust; it has become an iconic event in our culture — but we have ignored what is happening in Darfur, in front of our own eyes.

In modernity, memory has a moral function; when we forget what has happened, we tend to repeat it. And yet, like Conrad's Kurtz, we repeat, "The horror! The horror!" but it is too much for us; we close our eyes and look away.

If we are so inundated by horror that we cannot respond to the plight of victims, then what hope does the world have left? We need to create a culture of global empathy, morality, and responsibility that cannot allow such things as genocide to happen, what Robert Lifton has called a "species consciousness." As groups and nations we have largely failed to do this. Perhaps the strength must come from individuals, from those few people who do resist the deadening of their senses to horror, who are willing to commit themselves to stopping and preventing the greatest evil of the modern world.

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