An Interview with Assefash Makonnen: Vassar College

Vassar College is a liberal arts college in Poughkeepsie, New York. Founded in 1861, the college was an all women’s college until 1969 when it became coeducational. About 2,400 students currently attend Vassar College. With an acceptance rate of 23.5%, 15.8% of the class of 2018 were international students.

Liberal Arts Education

1. When did you go to Vassar/ what degrees did you receive from there?
I was at Vassar from 2008-2012 and received a BA in Urban Studies and Africana Studies ( dual major).

2. What are the quirky/unique/fun traditions that your school has?
One of my favorite traditions is the annual Founder’s Day celebration, where we celebrate the birthday of our Founder. It is during one of the last weekends of school and is a big, outdoor festival, with music, carnival rides, food, and sunshine. Each year has a theme that dictates the decoration ( one I remember well is Nickelodeon theme). Alumni return for this event, so it always feels like a huge reunion. Vassar has a lot of eccentric traditions, but Founder’s Day is definitely the one I remember fondly.

3. What is the Ethiopian/Eritrean student community like? 
There aren’t many Ethiopian/Eritrean students. At any time during my 4 years, there were about 3 or 4 others. However, we do have a strong African Students Union, which has students from all over the continent. The organization puts on dinners, movie screenings, brings speakers, hosts game nights, and so on. The school is only 1 hour and 30 minutes on the Metro North to New York City, so you can definitely tap into the habesha community there easily ( I went home to New York often for church events, weddings, etc.)

4. Describe one of your favorite memories at school. 
My favorite memories from school are all around spending one on one time with my friends outdoors, on the residential quad, or in our orchard by the lake. Vassar’s campus is beautiful, full of many different trees and flowers. We even have a huge farm, that’s great for long walks or runs. I remember, Founder’s Day evening, sitting on the hill by the lake, watching fireworks with friends and a movie that was being screened outdoors for everyone to see. It was just beautiful.

5. How do you think going to a liberal arts school influenced the education you received? Briefly describe what a liberal arts education is.

A liberal arts education prioritizes the students’ ability to learn from a wide range of methods and subjects. Liberal arts education focuses on the act of learning, developing skills for analyzing that in my opinion are more maleable and transferable than more “specialized” education practices. Particularly in this current job market, liberal arts degrees provide you with the opportunity to be the multi-faceted laborer the market looks for, able to move with the trends in market, adapt, and learn quickly.

5. What did you major/ minor in? Did you go into college undecided, with another major, or with the major you graduated with?
I double majored in Urban Studies ( with concentrations in Geography and Sociology) and Africana Studies ( with a concentration on the US). When I arrived as a freshman I was undecided, but thought I’d be doing art history or environmental studies. I decided on Urban Studies in my freshman year and added Africana Studies in my senior year.

6. Would you recommend a liberal arts school for a certain type of person, with certain interests? Who do you think would appeal to a school like Vassar? 
I recommend liberal arts education for anyone, really. The liberal arts can prepare you for any job because it works on teaching you how to learn and how to analyze and this skill is super important for a job in any field. Vassar, I think, would appeal to someone who has a love for learning, who is open to trying new things, who is driven and creative about designing their future, and who works best in more intimate environments ( small classes, personal relationships with teachers and classmates). I think most people who go to Vassar deeply think of their job afterwards as something they want to be passionate about, as they are in school.

7. What is one thing you think you gained from Vassar that no other school could have offered you?
 I think every school can offer you something unique depending on what you determine you need to grow in the way you imagine. For me, what I needed out of school was a community of students that I could learn with in and out of the classroom. Vassar made it easy for me to take my learning out of the classroom into casual conversations and in my work with various organizations. This helped make the theories I learned about in class more real and tangible. Vassar helped me understand the idea of manifesting my own future and what that means and takes.

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