Find Your People
Alumnae pursue unique connections through a powerful network of powerful women
Mount Holyoke alumnae have a knack for finding each other. There’s something about the bond formed in a lively classroom or in the shared history of this place that shapes the lives of the women who have passed through Mount Holyoke’s gates. It’s a bond that can span generations, continents, and even the length of an Olympic triathlon. Just ask the scribe who tracked down a partner-in-crime to pen the quarterly class notes. Or members of the class of 1992, who use Facebook to turn their classmates into triathletes. Or the two foreign service officers who showed their mettle in Baghdad as ISIS closed in on them.
A Foreign Investment
After shredding documents, nameplates, and anything else that could identify those who worked for the US Agency for International Development (USAID) in Iraq, Amy Koler ’02 and Sarah-Ann Lynch ’82 sat back in their empty office and watched CNN’s coverage of ISIS’s potential invasion of Baghdad, their current location. Eighty percent of their staff had left under mandatory evacuation. Four people remained in the USAID office, including Koler, Lynch, and an IT specialist. ISIS was within thirty miles of the embassy, and the crew knew that a Howitzer missile could hit a target twenty miles away. They prayed that the ten-mile buffer wouldn’t shrink further.
“I once told Sarah that I would work for her anywhere in the world, under any circumstances,” says Koler. “I didn’t know that would be tested so directly.”
Koler first met Lynch in Kabul, Afghanistan, in July 2008. Koler had graduated from Mount Holyoke in 2002 and earned her graduate degree in public administration, a degree she nicknames an “MBA for democrats.” Her interest in policy and public service led her to the Presidential Management Fellows Program, which matches graduate students with federal government positions. Part of the program required fellows to spend six months overseas. When Lynch, program office director in Kabul at the time, saw Mount Holyoke on Koler’s resume, she emailed her sister alumna and told her to come to Afghanistan. Koler went.
USAID works closely with governments as well as local nonprofits, private businesses, faith-based organizations, and others to assess a country’s needs. Lynch devises a strategic plan, designs and implements programs, and, eventually, reports the results back to DC.
“We hit it off immediately,” says Lynch, who speaks five languages and has been with the agency since 1993, serving in Bangladesh and Peru before coming to Kabul. “Amy’s the only person who came to me asking for more work. She did such a good job that we kept extending her time here.” Koler was supposed to be in Kabul for a six-month detail but stayed on for an extra six months after earning a big promotion to the role of gender advisor for Afghanistan.
“This was 2009,” explains Koler. “Shortly after I got the job, Barbara Boxer and other senators went on TV saying, ‘We’re in Afghanistan to help the women.’ That was my job. I was like, ‘Uh-oh, I better start studying.’”
Luckily, Koler had the best mentor available. Not only was Lynch good at nurturing talent, but she had made a name for herself in USAID: having already earned several awards, she would go on to win the 2010 Distinguished Honor Award, USAID’s highest performance award, for her service in Afghanistan and with the Office of Afghanistan and Pakistan Affairs. Thanks to Mount Holyoke, the two shared similar writing styles, which was helpful because much of Koler’s job was drafting and editing documents for Lynch.
“There was an awareness of certain things that we had because of Mount Holyoke,” says Koler, who says the type of work they did together was comfortingly familiar. “The analysis and conversations we had in Kabul and Baghdad were similar to the way we discussed things during our years at Mount Holyoke.” The difference from college was that men often outnumbered the women. This only strengthened the pair’s bond after Kabul.
In 2014 Koler became deputy office director in Baghdad. Soon after, Lynch convinced her family to let her go to Baghdad for a year, and she was sworn in as mission director. She urged Koler to stay on as her right hand. Then, in June 2014, ISIS made its way toward Baghdad, and by June 15 the majority of the US Embassy staff was evacuated, leaving the compound with only one hundred people.
“Normally, we focus on long-term development, but with ISIS we pivoted to short-term humanitarian assistance for internally displaced people,” says Lynch. “We helped Iraqis find safe places to stay, health care, and jobs. Meanwhile, we were also managing the home front and letting our families know that we were OK.”
“ISIS was never going to invade Baghdad, but it didn’t feel that way then,” says Koler. “If our colleagues were late for work, we worried something had happened to them.”
Being a foreign service officer isn’t an easy gig, especially when you’re the mother of three children, as Lynch is, and need to explain why you’re going into a war zone for a year. Lynch says sometimes people look at you like you’re crazy, while others think it’s fascinating.
“The experience of that year in Iraq was the most formative professional time of my life,” says Koler. “Working with Sarah made my job fun and rewarding. It’s the reason I stay in this crazy career.”
Two of a Kind
Ellin Rosenzweig ’54 and Elaine Fischer Marshack ’54 call themselves the Bobbsey Twins, but they may be closer to identical Nancy Drews. The pair of class scribes has spent more than six years (eleven for Marshack) tracking down classmates to get the latest on their lives—careers, accolades, children, and travel. There’s a giddy joy that the two women get from their quarterly task.
“We have more time than younger scribes now that we’re retired,” says Rosenzweig, who began volunteering as coscribe when Marshack recommended her for the position just before their fifty-fifth reunion.
Also a coscribe for her high school in Brooklyn, Rosenzweig says she “learned how to snoop” when she became an active volunteer in the school’s development department helping to find lost alumni. “I found a mug shot online of one alumnus and discovered an alumna who was a jazz pianist and singer, and, being snoopy, found her on YouTube.”
“She’s a sleuth!” says Marshack. “My favorite part of being a scribe is collaborating with Ellin. We always have a luncheon in Washington Square and decide who we’re going to attack next.”
The two New Yorkers focus their “attack” on the elusive non-responders, the people who don’t reply to emails and postcards asking for updates. Because the same group of people tend to respond each year, Marshack decided to draw up a list of all 450 original class members (including those who did not graduate) to track down those who hadn’t already appeared in their column. Rosenzweig sniffs out contact information through the Internet, and the pair begins making phone calls. Usually, they spend the first part of every phone call explaining that they’re not asking for money. Then they start making more personal connections with their classmates.
“Since our class has been out for more than sixty years, we tend to get a lot of sad news; news of people who are sick or handicapped,” says Rosenzweig. “We often invite women who are widowed to write a couple of sentences about their husbands, but we try to keep the column upbeat. When we talk to people, we want a survey of their lives.”
Those lives are rich with stories. Rosenzweig and Marshack learn about classmates who have biked around Europe, others who have authored several books, and one alumna who traveled to South Africa for the World Orchid Congress just this past September. Their own lives are just as interesting.
Marshack is a retired teacher from the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College, where she taught for thirty years after spending eleven years as a social worker, the first five in Harlem during a period of growing drug abuse in that community. She also joined her husband as his assistant when he traveled to Europe and the Middle East for archaeological research. Rosenzweig worked for twenty-five years in the American Wing at The Metropolitan Museum of Art as an administrative assistant and then as associate manager of one of the museum’s largest donor groups. The scribes knew each other but weren’t close friends during their time at Mount Holyoke, but both credit the College for the reason why they—and so many of their classmates—are close today.
“I think the absence of men in classes and in the dormitory allows the kind of development of relationships and participation in academic life that’s very special,” says Marshack. “Besides a good education, I met people I deeply cared about and got leadership opportunities I might not have had with men around.”
The two women often meet for lunches around the city, consulting each other about the column. They take turns writing first drafts, which they email back and forth for tweaking. With only 315 words for their column, the women have learned to embrace brevity, though they lengthen it when they can.
“Sometimes we carry over extra words from the growing tribute section in order to have more words for the living,” says Marshack. The class of 1954 has lost about 150 of their classmates so far. That’s why the duo works diligently to bring together the classmates they have left.
“There were a couple of women living in New York who hadn’t been heard from in a long time, so Elaine and I suggested we all get together for lunch,” says Rosenzweig. “We met at the Neue Galerie. One came right away, the other a little later. The alumna who came late had this glaze in her eyes, like, ‘Why did I say yes?’” It didn’t take long for her to be glad she had.
“The two women found they had so much in common!” says Marshack, laughing along with Rosenzweig. “They’d both summered in Provençe. We all had a wonderful time and continued to get together.”
Rosenzweig and Marshack get together far more often, attending New York Philharmonic open rehearsals, meeting at museums, and during class mini-reunions that they started organizing a few years ago. The two, it seems, have found a wonderful complement in each other.
“It’s certainly my luck that Elaine found me,” says Rosenzweig.
The Iron Girls
In 2010, four Mount Holyoke alumnae decided to challenge each other to enter a race: the 2011 Iron Girl Lake Las Vegas Women’s Triathlon. It would consist of an 800-meter swim, 14-mile bike ride, and 3.1-mile run in the unforgiving desert heat. A week after they crossed the finish line, they created the MHC ’92 Iron Girls Facebook page, the de facto triathlon training and support group for 1992 Mount Holyoke College alumnae scattered across the country.
In the group’s first post, the four founding members—Kristen Scheyder ’92, Lorrel Birnschein Plimier ’92, Jennifer Webster ’92, and Alethea O’Donnell ’92—are pictured in their wet suits just before the Las Vegas race. This was the first of many triathlons for the group, which has grown to twenty-four members, including triathletes, wannabe triathletes, and their supporters.
“We’re all professionals with kids who are trying to balance fitness with a career and a family,” says Julie Temlak ’92, who joined the group during a 6:00 a.m. Upper Lake run just after her twentieth Mount Holyoke College reunion in 2012. “Everyone has the same challenges and has been so supportive of each other. I would have never—not in a million years—done a triathlon if it weren’t for these women.”
The four original group members lived in Brigham Hall during their senior year at Mount Holyoke. Webster and Plimier competed on the water polo team, and Scheyder played golf for the Lyons.
“There’s something about your college friends,” says Plimier. “You form a bond that’s different from the one you have with other people. Through our group, I’ve met women I didn’t know in college and others who weren’t there at the same time. We still talk about Mount Holyoke as if we were there together.”
“Mount Holyoke alums are hardcore,” says O’Donnell. “I don’t know what it is about this school. People become inspired by the group and next thing you know, Jen is flying in from Alaska to race.”
On the Iron Girls Facebook group, women post training questions (“I need to be training 4-6 times a week for the next 8 weeks. Doable, right??”), training updates (“8 miles today. . .”), successes (“Beat the 74yo grandpa by :01 sec. Lol!”) and disappointments (“Torn soleus. Ugh.”). They share photos of families and vacations and links to articles about staying in shape and preventing injuries—anything that’s a part of life and being an athlete.
That support is most important during the hard times. Just this year O’Donnell found out she needs foot surgery and both of her parents were hospitalized. Training took a backseat, but she could turn to her online friends to help her through it.
“We’re getting older, which takes a toll on your body,” says O’Donnell, who lives in rural western Massachusetts. “But the group is there for moral support, no matter what the challenges. There’s always some rallying encouragement.”
For Webster, getting older means she needs to work out more, not less.
“I had surgery on my knees years ago, and I feel pain when I don’t exercise,” says Webster, who lives in Kodiak, Alaska, and trains mostly on her own because she’s far from a triathlon training group. “If I see that someone else was up and running at 5:00 a.m., then I have no excuse to skip my workout.”
And not every benefit is related to the triathlon. Temlak’s first race with the group was an Iron Girl in Atlanta, Georgia, that was canceled thanks to a massive storm that dumped six inches of rain in two hours, washing out the course. During the downtime, Temlak told O’Donnell she was looking for a job. Six months later, Temlak got a phone call and a new job with O’Donnell’s company.
During that time, Plimier proved that anything is possible if you’re willing to train for it. In July 2013, she finished the Vineman Ironman Triathlon in northern California, racing a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, and 26.2-mile run. Plimier says the training leading up to the race was the hardest part because it required six months of total commitment.
“It was a lot of sacrifice for one of the best days of my life,” says Plimier, who recently turned to the group for courage and advice on taking on the grueling Escape From Alcatraz triathlon in San Francisco.
Some of the women will be meeting in Seattle for a triathlon next summer. Others are toying with the idea of a tropical vacation triathlon. And some wouldn’t mind having one at their twenty-fifth reunion in 2017.
“We’ve kicked around the idea of a Mount Holyoke triathlon,” says Plimier. “We just need to find someone to organize it.”
—By Rachel Sturtz
Rachel Sturtz is a freelance writer living in Denver. She writes for Outside, Marie Claire, Popular Mechanics, and more.
—Photography by Erin Schaff and Lynne Graves
This article appeared in the fall 2015 issue of the Alumnae Quarterly.
October 14, 2015