The Strength of Our Connection
“Who on earth could be calling me?” I wondered as I made my way down the curving stairs to the telephone I shared with 30 other students in a Paris residence hall in the mid-1990s. I was a few months into two semesters of dissertation research, and I barely knew a soul outside the 19th-century theological seminary where my fellowship had housed me.
When I picked up the receiver, my tentative “Allo?” was met with a chipper female voice. “Hello!” said the voice. “I’m calling from the Bryn Mawr Club of Paris to invite you to tea!”
And perhaps incredibly, after an initial moment of dumbfounded silence, my first thought was, of course you are!
Sadly I no longer remember the name of the alumna who called me that day or how she knew where to reach me. But I remember how uplifting it was to spend a couple of hours on a chilly gray afternoon in the company of women I instantly felt comfortable with—to hear the professional and personal stories that had led them to Paris, to take a break from my shaky French, and to learn that there was a lovely market on the Rue St. Jacques, just a short walk from my foyer. And I remember realizing that the reason I was, on some level, not surprised to be there was that I had already learned two things about Bryn Mawr alums: Mawrters are everywhere, and they love to connect.
As Anjana Varma ’10 and Radha Karnad ’03 can attest, even international alumnae/i occasionally enjoy the random thrill of a crazy, small-world Mawrter moment. Currently co-presidents of the Bryn Mawr Club of Kenya, the two women originally met in Nairobi through a family connection. They were already hitting it off as friends when they learned they were both Bryn Mawr grads. “It was so funny; we couldn’t believe it,” says Varma of the moment.
But for the most part, alumnae/i who live outside the U.S. tend to miss out on the easy proximity of college friends enjoyed by those of us who landed in big American cities, particularly on the East Coast.
Additionally for some, distance from the U.S. may be layered with the stress of adapting to language and cultural differences. And even seasoned expatriates may live with a certain not-from-here feeling that never goes away. “You’re still a fish, but you’re in a different ocean,” says Beatrice Desper ’88 of living as an American in Paris, where she met her husband during her junior year abroad and has spent her whole post-BMC life.
For these Mawrters—currently numbering about 1,500 — the Alumnae Association’s 17 International Clubs provide ongoing, varied opportunities to connect. In a series of lively conversations, I spoke to volunteer leader on three continents to learn how these groups foster the sense of Bryn Mawr community that so many of us value, and why that work is important.
A Wide Net
The International Clubs host events as formal as the elegant London kickoff for the Defy Expectation Campaign in 2018, when the Club of the United Kingdom welcomed President Kim Cassidy and more than 100 guests for champagne inside the British Parliament, and as casual as drinks on the terrace of a Madrid home with visiting Spanish professor Rosi Song. A club may be almost as old as the College (Japan) or formed as recently as a few months ago (Southern Africa). And depending on where a club is based, an event may draw dozens of Mawrters or deem it a success if it brings together two or three.
But if the clubs lack uniformity (for many Mawrters, an overrated quality in any case), they are consistent in casting a warm, wide, energetic net of connectivity. Through a range of annual and ad hoc events, as well as informal networking through social media, they gather in not only alums who make their homes outside the U.S., but also those sojourning for business or graduate work or passing through for fun, as well as undergraduates studying abroad, staff on College business, and visiting faculty. Along the way, they provide critical support to the College’s recruiting, admissions, parent engagement, and philanthropy efforts on a global level.
For many clubs, Bryn Mawr traditions, with their power to reinforce ties over time and space, inspire signature events. Depending on where you find yourself on any given May Day (plague years excepted), you might join Mawrters picking strawberries outside London, or enjoying strawberries with champagne over brunch in Paris, or sharing—of course!—strawberries at a picnic lunch in a Tokyo park. And should you find yourself in Madrid during a certain week in February, Maggie Zelonis ’13, founding president of the Bryn Mawr Club of Spain, will happily invite you to toast the first-years at a WTF happy hour.
Activities also coalesce around juniors studying abroad, who will find alumnae/i hospitality wherever their Junior Year Abroad programs take them. In Paris, the club holds an annual cocktail party—er, tea—for the juniors (usually five or six a year). The evening, according to Desper, historically includes wine, charades, and the alums pumping the students for “all the news on campus that’s not fit to print.”
“We love to talk to the juniors,” says Desper of the Paris alums, who range in class years from the 1950s to the late 2010s. “It’s fun to compare experiences. The traditions sound similar. The curriculum has changed, and the professors have changed. The desire to take on the world— that hasn’t changed.” Juniors in London can count on a similarly enthusiastic welcome from the U.K. club. Severa von Wentzel ’95, the club’s secretary and a trustee of the College, described a (pre-pandemic) gathering at a Mexican restaurant as “fantastic.” With both juniors and recent grads in attendance, she says, there was “really good energy. The younger the students are, the more exciting it is.” Rachel Savage ’98, co-president of the U.K. club, has found that the visiting juniors are often surprised by the culture shock they experience. “You think, English-speaking, okay. … But the education system is very different, and it’s more different than you expect it to be.” At an annual Thanksgiving dinner hosted by Savage in her London home, juniors and alums come together not only for some Bryn Mawr fellowship but also to enjoy a distinctly American holiday at a time of year when some may feel especially far from home.
Being part concierge and part international safety net comes with the clubs’ territory, too. The alums I spoke to routinely—and by all accounts cheerfully— dispense guidance (often through Facebook groups) on navigating everything from public transportation to public schools. Savage, for her part, has demystified the British university system for more than a few Mawrters in the U.K., and Zelonis tapped her BMC network to help an alum find a place to stay when all of Madrid was booked for the Champions League soccer match in 2019.
An Invisible Hug
Sometimes, being a safety net means something more nuanced. In the spring of 2018, Gina Spinelli ’84, co-president of the Rome club, received an email from Beth Posner ’89, P’25. They had never met, but Posner wrote that she was reaching out because her daughter, a Swarthmore student, would be spending the summer in Rome on a study program. Would Gina be her point of contact? Posner would feel better, she said, if she knew that Rebecca had someone to call if she needed anything while far from home in a foreign city.
Spinelli says she was moved that Posner had reached out on the strength of their Bryn Mawr connection. “It touched me,” she says. “It was like an invisible hug.” Spinelli and her fellow Mawrters in Rome welcomed Rebecca with a dinner out that all remember as delightful. Only later, Spinelli says, did they learn that just three months before, Rebecca had suddenly lost her father, Beth’s husband. With that knowledge, Posner’s request—and the strength of their connection—took on a new level of meaning.
“Bryn Mawr has always had an international reputation,” points out von Wentzel—and indeed, the College has always admitted students from other countries and always focused on the global advancement of women as part of its mission. Beginning in the 1970s, the worldwide recruiting efforts of Director of Admissions Emeritus Elizabeth Vermey ’58 built up the international student body— currently 21 percent of undergraduates—in ways that continue to shape the institution’s global reach and presence. The first Bryn Mawr International Forum —scheduled, as cosmic bad luck would have it, to coincide with the first COVID-19 lockdowns of 2020—was poised to convene in London at the high-water mark of that reach, with more than 150 people registered to attend from 17 countries.
The history of the clubs in many ways mirrors the history of Bryn Mawr’s global footprint, beginning with the legacy of its very first international student, Umeko Tsuda (Class of 1890, known at the time as Ume Tsuda). Tsuda returned to her native Japan to become the founder of Tsuda College (now Tsuda University) and a towering figure in the history of women’s education in that country. Fujiko Amano ’94, co-president of the Japan Club, traces the roots of the club directly to Tsuda, making it the oldest of the College’s international alumnae/i organizations. Through Tsuda as well as through Japanese women’s studies educator Hiroko Hara, Ph.D. ’64, says Amano, “Bryn Mawr alumnae have had profound influence on women’s education in Japan.” The U.K. club has an exceptionally precise origin story, documented in a classified ad that ran in the Times of London on Jan. 14, 1952. Placed by Louise Cochrane ’40, who would be the founding president, the ad invited “Bryn Mawrters in London” to an “informal reunion” over four o’clock tea. The communication drew eight alumnae to Cochrane’s home and established a robust club that celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2002. (Thanks to verbiage that was the functional equivalent of a secret handshake, it also drew a curious reporter, photographer in tow. He probably hoped to uncover something more esoteric than a tea party for graduates of an American women’s college, but the group got a lovely photo out of it.)
In some cities, Vermey’s legendary international work proved formative for the clubs as well as for the College. In reaching out to alumnae/i wherever she traveled to recruit, Vermey sparked the connectivity that is embedded in Mawrter DNA—perhaps through the sheer force of her personality.
The Bryn Mawr Club of Paris, according to Desper, was for decades an informal alumnae/i network , but “alumnae came out of the woodwork” for events organized around Vermey’s visits in the 1990s; she “made the mayonnaise take, to use a French expression,” Desper says.
Betty Wei Liu ’53 recalls that Vermey’s quest for “superb candidates” in Asia likewise catalyzed engagement, including Liu’s own, in Hong Kong. “Whenever Betty [Vermey] came, it was always great,” she says. “Then things would happen.” Liu, who was born in China but moved New York in the 1940s (her father, a scientist and diplomat, was serving at the U.N.), relocated to Hong Kong in the 1970s. While both her daughters attended Bryn Mawr and she pursued her doctorate at the University of Hong Kong, Liu became the de facto resident host and event coordinator for students, prospective students, and visiting staff—a function she was still carrying out when she welcomed President Cassidy to Hong Kong in 2017.
New clubs continue to form, expressions of the ever-evolving international student and alumnae/i community. Reflecting recruitment and enrollment trends, clubs in Beijing, Shanghai, and Taiwan have taken shape over the past decade. In Spain, Zelonis took the initiative to start a club not long after she relocated to Madrid in 2015. “I just looked for people living in Spain through Athena’s Web and emailed them,” she says. “And every single one of them emailed me back.” The Club of Southern Africa is so new that “so far it’s just me,” founding president Ntshadi Mofokeng ’12 said with a laugh in December. At the time, the Johannesburg resident was planning the club’s launch as part of a pan-African Zoom event scheduled for January 2021. Additional fledgling clubs include those of India and ASEAN (with alumnae/i based in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand).
The Pandemic Pivot
Under the stress of lockdowns and omnipresent health risks due to COVID-19, the International Clubs fell into unofficial hiatus early in 2020. But as Mawrters, along with the College and the rest of the world, responded to the pandemic with far-reaching adaptations driven by remote technology, they found new ways to connect that are rapidly reshaping their interactions with one another and with the College.
Virtually everyone I spoke to said that the pandemic, especially during its destabilizing early days, had inspired them to connect digitally with geographically far-flung friends and classmates—and that these Zoom gatherings over coffee or cocktails or books or crafting have become a permanent part of their lives’ connective tissue. In addition to facilitating these informal connections, the pandemic Zoom boom has also had profound implications for the College’s alumnae/i outreach efforts. The organizers of the 2020 International Forum, forced at the last moment to pivot from live events to remote platforms, ended up blazing a trail for digital gatherings that not only delivered programming successfully, but also drew in many who would not otherwise have been able to participate—opening new ways for the College and the alumnae/i community to build and sustain engagement internationally.
In a way, the pandemic gave rise to the new Club of Southern Africa. Although Mofokeng had been mentally nurturing “the seed” of the club for some time, “the pandemic made it seem viable,” she says. “In this virtual time, it became easy to imagine something that could work over a wider area” than a single city or even a single country. In a planning call for the recent pan-African event—itself a product of the pandemic—Mofokeng’s fellow club presidents in Africa agreed that a continental strategy was exciting. “What we can do together across the region,” says Karnad, “now that’s powerful.”
For Karnad and Varma, discovering their Bryn Mawr tie instantly made their friendship, in Karnad’s words, “much warmer and deeper.” By coming together to lead the Kenya club, they have cultivated what Varma calls “an amazing sense of community” through the group.
Asked why they make Bryn Mawr a priority in their lives—often alongside intense work and family demands—all the women I spoke to used similar language. Connecting with other Bryn Mawr women through the Paris club, says Desper, “helps us realize that what we are doing here, often through our volunteer work, is important. … Living abroad is hard, and other Mawrters offer an important support.”
For some, prioritizing Bryn Mawr carries an element of pushing back—in loud and proud BMC style—against their adopted or native culture. Savage describes her London work environment at the Bank of England as “very male” and was delighted to hear recently (through an email with the subject line “Bryn Mawr”), from a fellow Mawrter within the organization. And she finds that in the U.K. generally, “being an OxCam alum carries certain advantages.” Getting a bit of “the old girls’ network out there” through fostering her Bryn Mawr connections, she says, “redresses a little of that.”
In Japan, “to have a career as a woman, even in our generation, is not easy,” says Amano, an attorney who oversees research and international policy at ASEAN-Japan Centre. In a deeply patriarchal work culture, she says, “Bryn Mawr is my backbone.” Amano sees both her professional and volunteer work as “cultivating the DNA of Tsuda” in Japan.
Mofokeng’s commitment to the new Southern Africa club is rooted in her experience as one of a handful of African students at Bryn Mawr, where, she says, “we could all fit into one single to hang out.” She sees the club as a way of “building that community, and being able to reinforce that connection.” And she believes that if the work of connection—through “giving and receiving support” among alumnae/i—is successful, it can lead to something larger, namely, “being able to influence representation.”
As alumnae/i in Africa, Mofokeng goes on to explain: “We get all these communications from the College, but they don’t apply to us. We can’t go [to the events]. There are so few of us, and we are so spread out. You don’t see yourself in the communications.” But by coming together, she reasons, “we can make space for better representation. We can influence growing the community, and we can raise our profile as alums.” This higher profile, in turn, could have an impact in spaces where “we have proximity to young women”—potentially bringing the work of community-building full circle by encouraging more students from Africa to consider Bryn Mawr.
And Betty Wei Liu? Asked why she has kept Bryn Mawr a priority in her life since graduating 68 years ago, Liu responded simply, in a tone suggesting that I surely must already know the answer, “Why? Bryn Mawr made me.”