Alumni success confirms value of liberal arts education

September 21, 2009

Four distinguished alumni returned to campus Sept. 21 to share the stories of their successes and discuss the relevance of an education anchored in the liberal arts and sciences during a day-long event sponsored by the Delta of Maryland Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.

World-renowned wildlife conservationist Alan Rabinowitz ’74 presented the talk, “Saving the World’s Endangered Cats: Why Science is Not Enough,” and was inducted into the prestigious liberal arts honor society Phi Beta Kappa. Three panelists – Dianne Briggs Martin ’65, Kenneth M. Short ’81 and Kristen Purcaro Welch ’94 discussed the relevance and value of the liberal arts in preparing them for their varied careers.

Rabinowitz, authority and activist in conservation of endangered big cats, explained to his audience that good science is surely the basis of his work. Then, however, he must become everything but a scientist – villager, marriage counselor, cattle rancher, diplomat – to give local people and their top government officials, some of whom are dictators, the incentive or reason to save jaguars, tigers and other big cats.

Phi Beta Kappa chapter officers Professor Mary Bendel-Simso and Professor John Olsh with newly inducted wildlife conservationist Alan Rabinowitz '74 and Phi Beta Kappa Senator Jim Lightner.

Author of six books and 80 publications, Rabinowitz has spent three decades in the jungles and in government offices in Central and South America and in Myanmar (formerly Burma) tirelessly – and successfully – advocating habitat preservation and genetic corridors through which jaguars and tigers roam and mate with other populations, thus strengthening their gene pools.

“The reality is that you go for whatever you can get,” Rabinowitz said after recounting the efforts involved in getting the government of Myanmar to protect 2,500 square miles of tiger habitat, a huge achievement he called his, “crowning glory.”

Of course, similarly huge achievements punctuate his resume. His work has resulted in the world’s first jaguar sanctuary in Belize; Taiwan’s largest protected area, its last piece of intact lowland forest; the first field research on Indochinese tigers, Asiatic leopards, and leopard cats in Thailand in the region’s first World Heritage Site; and the creation of five protected areas in Myanmar, including the country’s first marine national park, the country’s first and largest Himalayan national park, the country’s largest wildlife sanctuary, and the world’s largest tiger reserve.

Always aim high, he said.

“This is what you have to shoot for,” he said to the students, professors and others gathered for the evening lecture as he pointed to an Albert Einstein quote projected on the two screens in McDaniel Lounge. “One should not pursue goals that are easily achieved. One must develop an instinct for what one can just barely achieve through one's greatest efforts.”

The afternoon’s panelists also set ambitious goals that fueled their successful careers in higher education, historic preservation and the Central Intelligence Agency. Three skills Kristen Welch attributes to her liberal arts education which have proven invaluable to her as CIA’s former chief of the Europe and Eurasia team are critical thinking and analysis, the ability to write, and collaboration with diverse people.

“I write for the President and need to boil down hundreds of reports into a single page for the busiest policymaker in the nation,” she said. “And at (the college) I learned how to stand and communicate effectively.”

A graduate of the college’s Honors Program, Kristen enrolled in a variety of courses never imagining how relevant the subject areas would be in her profession.

”My Genetics course taught me how to study and think outside the box,” she said. “Studying German, Japanese fiction, and Tai Chi all taught me to understand different cultures.”

She admitted to hating math and was “forced” to enroll in Finite Mathematics with Professor Jim Lightner. When the entire class failed a test early in the semester, Lightner assigned everyone to work together on solving the problems outside of class. “And we did,” said Kristen. “It taught me about collaborating with others.”

McDaniel College is one of 276 U.S. institutions with a chapter of the Phi Beta Kappa honor society. The Delta of Maryland Chapter at McDaniel was established in 1980. Founded in 1776, Phi Beta Kappa is the nation’s oldest academic honor society. Its goal is to support, foster, and recognize the excellence of liberal arts scholarship in the institutions of higher education in America.