After 25 Years, Westphal Prepares to Say Goodbye

Myrt Westphal at an RA dinner at President Al Bloom's house in 2009. She is accompanied by Alexa Bensimhon (left) and Alysha Newton (right).

Associate Dean of Student Life Myrt Westphal is departing at the end of the academic year.  After 25 years of providing her dedication, generosity, and quirky “Myrt-isms,” Westphal is retiring to Montana, where she will provide nurturing support for her grandchildren, as she has been for Swarthmore students for the past few decades.

Dean of Students Liz Braun announced Westphal’s decision to retire in a campus-wide email on October 10th. The email stated that Westphal would leave next July, after helping the Dean’s Office orchestrate and transition to her replacement.

Braun then sent out an email on November 12th outlining the preliminary plan for the search for replacements for both Westphal and Associate Dean of Multicultural Affairs Darryl Smaw, who retired last summer. The new positions will consist of an Associate Dean of Diversity, Inclusion, and Community Development; and an Assistant Dean of the Senior Class and Judicial Affairs Coordinator. The email invited students, faculty and staff to join search committees for both positions.

Westphal first came to Swarthmore 25 years ago when her husband, Larry Westphal, became a math professor at the college. Myrt described her role as “Head of Transition” as she moved her family from the D.C. area, though the move was only one of many amid Westphal’s life and travels.

Westphal attended Occidental College where she majored in Political Science and minored in Art. At Boston University, she got a Masters in Education. Westphal taught middle school art in Boston, then Princeton. As is typical of Westphal, she simultaneously perceived life lessons for herself for the future, while inspiring others to learn and create.

“What I learned in art class was if you didn’t have 30 pots of glue, pairs of scissors, and didn’t know their names, there’d be chaos,” she said. “Art is very hard for junior high school students, who are very self-conscious about what they’re doing right and wrong.” Westphal taught that art is “more about looking than producing. I learned a lot about being organized and helping people see the wider boundaries of art.”

Westphal’s teaching career ended when she and her husband spent a year in Korea. She became involved with activities and organizations in her community that she continues today, such as tennis. “I was the head of the swim club’s tennis team, the head of a cooperative preschool, head of [a] league of women voters,” she said.

Westphal spoke about the ways in which her identity has changed as her line of work and her locations changed.  “When I came here […] I didn’t have the community capital I had built up in my previous life,” she said. She built that capital over the years, as her identity transitioned from volunteer work to the world of professional work and higher education. Westphal also tied this change to the shifting role of women in the workplace.

Westphal described her path in the realm of higher education as unorthodox.  “I just sort of stumbled into it, but I had had a lot of preparation from things I’d been doing,” she said. After she had lived in Swarthmore for about a year, Westphal became the administrator of a summer program on Swarthmore’s campus whose purpose was to “help middle-ability students get more interested in math and science.”

The program was run by a Dean, at the time named Janet Dickerson, with whom Westphal became acquainted. “After a year I said if there are any little jobs you need done I’d be interested and happy to do it,” Westphal said.

In the fall of 2008, the RAs and Myrt Westphal went on a trip to Dave & Busters. The RAs combined all their tickets to present Westphal with this bear as a gift.

So began Westphal’s legacy of shape-shifting, as she took on myriad roles throughout the college. In the early years of her time at Swarthmore, she helped one Dean get a cohort of blind and visually impaired students ready for class; she assisted another with Fellowships and Prizes. “I applied for a couple jobs along the way,” she said, “but a lot of it just sort of grew organically.”

Westphal left Swarthmore for a year to accompany her husband on his sabbatical in The Netherlands. This and her other world travels gave Westphal valuable experience that she later used as a dean, according to Assistant Dean for Residential Life Rachel Head. “She lived in different cultures, understanding what it’s like to be minority in a situation,” Head said. “That translates at Swarthmore because [Westphal can] identify with a student and help them figure out what they’re struggling with.”

Westphal returned the next year and applied for the open Dean of Residential Life position. In the midst of that position, doing disability work and Fellowships and Prizes work, Westphal became the director of the then-new Lang Opportunity Scholars program, which she ran for five years.

“She’s kind of done everything related to student life at Swarthmore,” Head said.

Westphal described her training as having “been mentored by the best.” She had never been trained in higher education, but she found in Swarthmore a place to grow and contribute. “Swarthmore is a very supportive work environment,” she said. “You can go to anybody and ask them anything, and you can make mistakes and people will help you solve the problem.”

After a time, Westphal transitioned from the role of mentee to the mentoring role she is now known for. She described that turning point as when the Associate Dean for Student Life left, and after 12 years of working with housing, Westphal applied for that job. “I was supervising other people and I felt like I could give back some of the wisdom that I’ve gained to others.”

Westphal has fulfilled that through her roles as Assistant Dean, Dean for Residential Life, and chair of the College Judiciary Committee. Of Westphal’s work with the CJC, Head said that “students report back that she’s very, very fair and transparent in the process. She’s an advocate for all parties in the process.”

Seth Udelson ’13 works with Westphal as an RA and on the CJC. “Working on the CJC you get a sense she cares about students’ wellbeing, proper institutional channels, [and a] holistic approach, [which is] vital for someone in her perspective,” Udelson said.

“Myrt has her finger on the pulse of everything,” Udelson said. He touted Westphal’s ability to adapt to different contexts, whether by fulfilling different dean roles or talking to students or colleagues in various circumstances. “She’s way more than the sum of her roles,” he said.

Westphal prioritizes individual students above all. “I think students feel she’s an advocate for individual students,” Head said. “She’ll go the extra mile to say, ‘where are you at right now and what do you need?’” That advice, Head said, changes on an individual basis, as Westphal works to confront students’ problems on an individual level.

That individual care especially extends to RAs, who occupy an in-between campus role as part student, part authority. Westphal is a reassuring force and a resource for RAs just as much as for other students, encouraging individuality with her support. “People always say ‘do you,’ but I think Myrt says it best,” Udelson said. “Myrt reassures everyone we all have capabilities, anything you can bring to role is good.”

Though she helps students on an individual basis, timeless “Myrt-isms” pervade across circumstances. “Don’t jump out of the frying pan and into the fire,” according to Head, has become associated with roommate advice. “Build a cabinet of advisers” is advice which Westphal gives to many students, encouraging them to choose a “cabinet” of faculty, staff, peers and parents to whom they can go for intentional advice.

Myrt Westphal at the graduation of Andy Bender '09 (left) and Ali Jordan '09 (right).

Westphal’s support for students is extended to her colleagues as well. Wellness Coordinator Satya Nelms attributed the “welcoming and inviting” work atmosphere she found at Swarthmore largely to Westphal.

“She’s always very open and honest,” Nelms said. “Her advice is rarely ever anything I’d ever think of on my own. She’s very creative and insightful […]. She’s been a wonderful mentor.” For Nelms, who only joined the Student Life team of deans this year, the announcement of Westphal’s departure was difficult. “I cried when I found out she was retiring,” Nelms said.

The Student Life team has become close-knit. “As a supervisor, she’s always been an advocate of what we do,” Head said. “She supports [her] team, ‘her chickadees.’” From the newly instituted Bedtime Stories in Parrish Parlors to the first-annual Fun Fall 5K in October, Westphal has been a go-to resource for wellness initiatives, Nelms said.

That support, Head said, often manifests itself as candor and directness. “With Myrt it always feels like what you see is what you get,” Nelms said. “I never have to decipher what our interactions meant.”

According to Head, Westphal once asked a prospective RA during RA selection what a hall crawl is. “She says ‘we’re all adults here, it doesn’t have to be embarrassing,’” Head said. “We learn new terminology sometimes from students,” she added, citing a moment when the RA Selection Committee was made aware of the phrase “sexile.” Thus, Head said, Westphal embodies core Quaker ideals: “treat everyone with respect, there’s light in everybody, no need to dress up or shade things in way they don’t need to be; if she wants to know what a hall crawl is, she’ll ask.”

Though Westphal is carefully tuned in to the story of any student who comes to her, she has a special relationship with student athletes. An avid tennis player herself (she goes every Friday morning and plans to continue in retirement), she has taken some student tennis players under her wing.  “She’s a liaison with athletics,” Head said. “She’s very helpful to student athletes as they deal with balance and social stuff.”

Kelsey Johnson ’13 is a tennis player and was one of Westphal’s advisees before she declared her major. Johnson described Westphal as the “tennis team mom,” who came to almost every match. She first met Westphal when, before a tennis match, Johnson had to be driven to the hospital. “[Westphal] came to the hospital to hang out with me and drove me home,” she said.

That hospital visit was not the first time Westphal had responded to a student’s emergency. She said that one year, a student was having a baby on a night when Westphal was the dean on call. Rather than allow the student to remain in Worth alone or rush to the hospital by herself, Westphal accompanied her. Westphal described that event as one of the most memorable events of her Swarthmore career that she will take with her into retirement.

Westphal has served as a caring resource for personal, social, academic and work-related guidance. Her extensive experience working with people at Swarthmore has translated into a wealth of information and situational know-how. Currently the most senior dean, she has served as the Office’s institutional memory. “I’m sort of the memory keeper right now,” she said.

Head said she goes to Westphal frequently with questions; for example, when she wants to know about a certain housing decision in a certain dorm, Westphal can provide the answer. “We’ve had so many people come and go in [the] past couple years,” Head said. “[Westphal has] seen Swarthmore evolve and grow over [the] past couple decades.”

“You can’t discredit her experience,” Udelson said. “She’s been here for a while, and through and through she’s Swarthmore; that can’t be replaced by someone’s résumé.”

The Dean's Office participates in a community race, around 1998. From left to right: Myrt Westphal, Anna Cobo (Intercultural Dean), Linda Ivanovic (Financial Aid), Gigi Simeone (Health Sciences/Pre Law Advisor).

Westphal described the endowment as the most drastic transformation she’s seen in her time at Swarthmore. “Having always been an institution that could always do what it wanted to do, and had resources, [Swarthmore then had] to change to things like not getting raises, worrying about people’s jobs, and just not having the fullness of funds we always had had,” she said.

She also mentioned certain changes in the way the college has had to look at certain CJC decisions. Some medical and law schools have mandated that colleges and students report judiciary actions taken against them in their applications. Though the CJC may find a student in need of punishment, the college is now seeing those consequences imposed by the outside world as well. “That doesn’t jive with our wanting to have people learn from their mistakes,” Westphal said.

Though she has experienced these and other changes during her time at Swarthmore, Westphal emphasized her positive experience at the college. “It’s really been a great career for me,” she said. “I just feel so congruent with the values and the way things are done here. I love the bright and challenging students, [and] I have wonderful and supportive colleagues.”

Udleson said he feels “bad for whoever has to fill her shoes.” Though the new positions will separate out the roles that Westphal played on campus, Udelson said they will not amount to a new Westphal. “If they hire two, three, four, five more people, I’m not sure they can do the job the way Myrt does.”

Westphal’s identity will change once again as she enters the realm of retirement in Missoula, Montana after 25 years of having an identity tied to being a dean at Swarthmore. “What will it be like when I don’t have this identity connected to me anymore, and how important is my identity to me, is something that I will be exploring,” she said.

Photos courtesy of Associate Dean of Student Life Myrt Westphal. 

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