Santa Fe Parents
Fall 2010 Letter Home
New Assistant Dean Focuses on Community
At St. John’s College, the assistant dean – selected every three years from the ranks of tutors -- functions like a dean of students, with a portfolio that embraces a range of responsibilities designed to support students’ academic, social, physical, and emotional life at the college. Ned Walpin, the latest tutor to settle into the assistant dean’s office in the basement of Wiegle Hall, is keenly aware of the challenges and the satisfactions of this job.
Walpin grew up on Long Island, spending most weekends in New York City with his grandparents and family. For college, he ventured up the coast to Vermont, earning a bachelor’s degree in political science from Middlebury College in 1987 and then his master’s in English two years later. While working on his master’s in English, he pursued a doctorate in political science at Duke University. During the course of researching his dissertation, he was an exchange fellow and instructor at the Institut für Politische Wissenschaft at the Friedrick-Alexander Universität, in Erlangen, Germany. He returned to Duke and served as a fellow and instructor in the Kenan Ethics Program while completing his doctorate, which he received in 1998.
In addition to applying for the few, highly competitive academic positions in his field, political philosophy, Walpin began to consider options for a possible second career. “I started thinking about what would be interesting,” he recalls. “So, I took the Foreign Service exam and was offered a position; I also had some funny offers – one for what was essentially a corporate espionage position. I looked at the art world, too, but it was documentary television that seemed the most promising to me.”
As it turned out, Walpin was able to finagle a research position with Frontline, PBS’s public affairs documentary series. He researched a variety of topics for programs, from a documentary entitled “The Farmer’s Wife,” to a feature on a death-row inmate bound for execution, to a production about Saddam Hussein. In addition, he wrote pieces for the extensive websites Frontline develops for each program. While he found the work interesting, the opportunity to become a tutor at St. John’s was too good to pass up.
“I had heard of St. John’s, but didn’t know that one could just apply without responding to a job listing like at other colleges and universities,” Walpin explains. At an academic conference, he happened to meet Joe Macfarland, who just had recently joined the faculty of St. John’s College, Annapolis, and who urged him to put in an application. A position on the Santa Fe campus was open and Walpin got the job.
The transition from the East to the Southwest was actually quite natural, Walpin reflects. He loved the mountains of Vermont, had enjoyed a year in Colorado before graduate school, and was comfortable in the relatively small metropolis of Durham while in graduate school. “So the idea of the Rockies and a small city actually was in my blood already,” Walpin says. (When he needs a big-city fix, he can visit his parents, who now live on Manhattan – “it’s the best of both worlds,” he adds.)
Walpin and his wife Cynthia, whom he met in graduate school, have settled comfortably into Santa Fe. Their five-year-old daughter Alexandra has just started kindergarten. “In my free time,” he says, “I enjoy music – mainly listening these days – hiking, and working out, which I do far too seldom, given the demands of life.”
A tutor now since 1999, Walpin assumed the assistant deanship officially in the beginning of June, overlapping with incumbent David Carl for the first month after shadowing him for the spring semester. “While I do not believe that this job requires a significant agenda, I do hope to strengthen the sense of community and perhaps even a sense of service among students,” he reflects.
Walpin points out that most other colleges would be envious of the kind of community that does exist at St. John’s, but he believes that there could be a greater sense of responsibility among students to each other outside of the classroom. While this goal -- fostering “a care and communal respect” -- may be subtle, one possible strategy is to build upon events like Community Service Day, he suggests.
“On the first Saturday at the beginning of the fall semester, students and faculty get together in the morning and do an outdoor project that will help the college’s landscape in some way,” he explains. Boosting participation in this event and devising follow-up activities are the kinds of things he has in mind. “There are always competing demands,” he acknowledges, “but there are ways to get this community to be as vibrant as it can be.”
In the meantime, though, Walpin has plenty of tasks to handle, from supporting staff in their work to being responsive to students’ needs. As assistant dean, Walpin ultimately oversees everything from residential housing and the Student Activities Organization to security and student health. In addition, his door is open to students who may come into his office just to chat or to discuss any number of often-unpredictable situations or problems, from difficulties in the classroom to personal crises.
“I enjoy working with people and getting things done,” Walpin says. “And I love working with students. I’m trying to help them make their own lives here work for them.”
He also is aware that parents may be a bit apprehensive about their children away from home. “One of the benefits of St. John’s is that we are a small community, and we look after each other. There are plenty of resources here for helping students in a variety of ways, and we take that job very seriously and try to make it very personalized. Our aim is to give students what that they need to thrive.”
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