How The Vassar Network Fuels Success

From the Liberal Arts to Brilliant Careers
How Vassar Network Fuels Success typography
How Vassar Network Fuels Success typography
How Vassar Network Fuels Success typography
By Paula Derrow

long with their liberal arts education, Vassar students and graduates have a secret weapon: a passionate network of alums who are eager to open doors for one another at every career stage and in every field—from management consulting, finance, and tech to public service, nonprofits, and (of course) the arts. Here, we share some inspiring stories of connections made, dream jobs won, and the innovative, career-focused programs that are giving students a huge advantage before they graduate.

Like many liberal arts majors, Ellie Winter ’18, an Africana studies and media studies double major, didn’t start Vassar with any grand plan for what she wanted to do in life. “Actually, I had no idea,” laughs Winter, 28, who lives in Providence, Rhode Island. At first, the idea of turning to Vassar alums to help her figure out her path forward was a bit intimidating, if not off-putting. “My impression of networking and being mentored was sitting in front of someone in a big office with a tufted chair,” says Winter, who is the Digital Communications Manager at the Barr Foundation in Boston.

That impression changed radically during her sophomore year, when she became a student representative on the College’s Presidential Search Committee. Says Winter, “Being surrounded by Vassar alums at the peak of their careers, living their dreams, made me realize, ‘Oh, Vassar isn’t just a place where you come to learn. You can make connections and see yourself doing things you never thought possible.’”

That epiphany was solidified after Winter participated in Sophomore Career Connections (SCC) in 2016, throwing herself into a weekend of networking with alums who returned to campus in droves to meet students and participate in panel discussions about what they did for work and how they got there. “It made networking so approachable,” says Winter. With that newfound confidence, as the end of her senior year approached, Winter reached out to Anne Green ’93, an alum mentor in the communications field whom she’d met at SCC two years earlier. “Anne agreed to interview me,” Winter recalls, “and instead of a stranger, I felt like I was talking to someone invested in my growth.” Winter ended up getting a job at the firm Green worked for doing PR and corporate communications. “It was amazing to have someone looking out for me after I was hired,” Winter says. “I’ve always been so grateful for that gentle on-ramp to the working world!”

A group of students sit in a circle, listening to several alum mentors during an industry cluster at Sophomore Career Connections.
At industry-focused sessions during Sophomore Career Connections, students get to explore a multitude of career paths.

Karl Rabe

Career Help, the Liberal Arts Way

Older photograph of three quarter view of Vassar from down the road
Along with SCC, there are a number of other “on-ramps” that are helping funnel Vassar graduates into just about every field and industry imaginable. Besides the 65-odd career-focused programs and panels involving alums, the Center for Career Education (CCE) makes $500,000 worth of fellowship money available to students annually to support their summer internships and other meaningful experiences both locally and around the globe.

Resources such as the Internship Grant Fund and specialized fellowships like the Thompson Bartlett Fellowships for STEM and economics-related internships and the Tananbaum Fellowships for juniors add to the wealth of opportunities.

Additional support for Vassar-connected summer experiences comes from programs like Community Fellows, administered by the Office of Community-Engaged Learning, which allows students to work full time with Poughkeepsie nonprofits over the summer break; or the faculty-led Ford Scholars program and Undergraduate Research Summer Institute (URSI), where students can gain mentored research experiences with faculty. These programs create a remarkably efficient career pipeline, albeit with some zigging and zagging along the way.

One student who took advantage of several fellowships and mentoring programs is Hannah Van Demark ’15, a history major at Vassar and now a Strategy Manager at Nike who lives in Brooklyn, NY. As a Ford Scholar, she worked with history professor Robert Brigham conducting research on the International Criminal Court—even accompanying him and his family to Dublin for a symposium the summer after her first year at the College. “He really pushed me in my research; it was amazing to get a sense of what a career in academia might look like,” she says.

Her sophomore year, she went off to Bolivia, where she studied Spanish and interned for the Foundation for Sustainable Development courtesy of Vassar’s Ann Cornelisen Fellowship, which provided an $8,000 stipend. In Bolivia, she researched whether giving farmers even small loans could make a meaningful impact on their lives. Junior year, as a Tananbaum Fellow, she began zeroing in on her career goals—attending workshops on networking, interviewing, and career prep through the Center for Career Education, then nabbing a summer internship with the Senate Banking Committee. That led to her first real job after graduation, at the Federal Reserve Bank, where, like so many Vassar alums, she dove into mentoring right away.

Not surprisingly, Van Demark also returned to Vassar for SCC, both in 2017 (on the finance panel) and in 2024 (management consulting). “SCC brings career mentoring to a whole new level,” she says now. “It really helps students understand how the Vassar network can come into your life at different stages in your career.”

Three alums, including Charles Kim, class of 92, and Joshunda Sanders, class of 2000, at a table during a panel at Sophomore Career Connections.
Mentors advise students, but also get a chance to network with each other at career programs. After serving on an SCC panel together, publisher Charles Kim ’92, center, and author Joshunda Sanders ’00, right, collaborated on a book project.
Stockton Photo, Inc.
Often, that networking starts during the undergraduate years, through opportunities to work closely with faculty and form lasting relationships with them. Hannah Kolpe ’24, a neuroscience major who grew up in Santa Fe, NM, has been working with Professor Hadley Bergstrom in the lab through URSI since her junior year. “In a large university, it’s hard to make yourself known,” says Kolpe, who has already landed a job at the National Institutes of Health after graduation. “But because Vassar is small, it’s the professors, not TAs, who are teaching us science—they’re in the lab with us. To be involved in research at this level and see your projects moving forward, well, that’s really meaningful.”

Beyond the opportunities at Vassar lies that exceptionally tight and motivated alum network, one committed to helping not just recent graduates, but also helping one another. Indeed, the idea for SCC was hatched by Vassar alum and parent Carol Ostrow ’77 and her husband Michael Graff (both P’09,’15) when the couple realized that their son, a new Vassar grad, could benefit from tapping into the Vassar network as he pursued a job in finance. “Carol and I thought that maybe Vassar students could use some help entering careers other than law, medicine, arts and entertainment,” says Graff, a Senior Advisor at Warburg Pincus. “At that point, more than a decade ago, there wasn’t a big pipeline to higher-paying jobs on Wall Street or in management consulting.” So, the couple approached Stacy Bingham, Associate Dean of the College for Career Education, with a question: What if we could bring alums back to campus to help?

And come they did. “We started with maybe 50 mentors in 12 different industries, and now we have 18 industries with five or six alums on each, all talking about how Vassar helped them formulate who they wanted to be and the kind of careers they would love—in short, how a liberal arts education helped them launch in all arenas,” says Ostrow, who is a member of Vassar’s Board of Trustees. A decade later, in SCC’s 10th anniversary year, she is particularly gratified that so many of those early SCC sophomores come back (often more than once) as mentors themselves.

“I like to say that the Vassar network is deep, it’s wide, and it’s brimming with goodwill,” says the CCE’s Bingham. One example she points to is Rachel Garbade ’15, an Assistant Archivist at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Garbade got her first job at the Garth Greenan Gallery in New York City after she reached out to Alison Dillulio ’13. Both had worked together on Contrast, Vassar’s style and art magazine. “I was doing a lot of informational interviews, and Allison and I went to lunch. By the end of the meal, she’d offered me a job at the gallery!” Garbade recalls.

Ellie Winter ’18 got her first job out of college with help from a fellow alum—Anne Green ’93, whom she’d met at Sophomore Career Connections in 2016. Green agreed to interview her at the end of her senior year and Winter got the job. “I felt like I was talking to someone invested in my growth,” Winter said. “It was amazing to have someone looking out for me.”
Samuel Stuart Photography
Ellie Winter, class of 2018, gives a speech during the Commencement ceremony of her class.
Garbade went on to hire three more Vassar alums herself. Doing so, she says, was pretty much a no-brainer. “My mom [Bernice Feuer Garbade ’79] went to Vassar, so my whole life, I’ve been hearing about the Vassar ethos,” she says. “You get into a room with other people from Vassar and there’s this instant connection.”

Still, when Garbade volunteered to be an alum mentor at SCC in 2020, just before the pandemic hit, she wasn’t necessarily expecting new friendships out of the weekend. “But I got to meet alums from different years,” she says, “and now I have all these off-class relationships.” One of these includes a member of the class of 2022, who attended SCC as a sophomore and came up to Garbade in the dining hall after hearing her speak on a panel on identity. “We were chatting and she asked me what it was like to be queer in the real world,” Garbade recalls. Soon after, the two became friends on Instagram, and now they get dinner in New York City every few months. “I feel like I am where I am today because of my Vassar network,” says Garbade. “I had all of these great mentors and great connections, and now I like to be those things for other people.”

That doesn’t surprise Carol Ostrow. “This year, we had 14 mentors who did SCC as sophomores,” she says. “So many of them say they come back because that weekend changed their lives and launched them into who they are today.”

Dede Thompson Bartlett, class of 1965, who funded Vassar’s Thompson Bartlett Fellowships, sits surrounded by 2023 fellows.
Thompson Bartlett Fellowships are an example of how Vassar connects students to the world of work. More than 100 students have benefited from the STEM- and economics-related internships underwritten by Dede Thompson Bartlett ’65, center, who recently met with 2023 fellows.
Alysse Pulliam

Everything, Everywhere, All at Once

Older photograph of three quarter view of Vassar from down the road
Who they are today includes people at the top of their professions in just about every field. “We have alums working in every sector—the arts, film, and TV, which have always been strong areas for us, but also in science, tech, academia, and finance,” says Willa Vincitore ’92, Assistant Vice President for Alumnae/i Engagement. That career diversity sets Vassar apart from the competition. “Graduates from many of our peer liberal arts schools tend to have stronger representation in one industry or another, like finance or real estate,” says Jannette Swanson, Director of External Engagement in the Center for Career Education. “Our students go into those fields, but what distinguishes us is how varied the career paths are. They go on to do just about everything—10 percent in one field, 11 percent in another—basically, they’re everywhere.”

Credit goes to the broad base of education Vassar students get in the classroom, including how to write, analyze, evaluate, and think critically—in other words, the fruits of a liberal arts curriculum. And though conventional wisdom holds that a liberal arts education doesn’t give students the skills they need to secure well-paying, satisfying careers, the numbers tell a different story. A 2020 study from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce found that while liberal arts graduates earn less than STEM and other graduates in the early years of their careers, over time, that disparity disappears—and then some. By 40 years after graduation, the median return on investment (ROI) of liberal arts colleges exceeds the median ROI of most other types of universities by 25 percent ($918,000 versus $723,000). Even more surprising, the 40-year median ROI of liberal arts institutions ($918,000) rivals those of four-year engineering and technology-related schools ($917,000), and four-year business and management schools ($913,000).

Those stats bear out for many Vassar graduates, as well. Answering the 2023 Vassar Alum Census for Vassar classes of 1953 to 2018, an impressive 92 percent of respondents said Vassar prepared them for a career; 94 percent said they are satisfied in those careers; and 95 percent said the benefits of a Vassar education outweigh the cost.

A Zig-Zagging Road to Success

Older photograph of three quarter view of Vassar from down the road
Another reason a liberal arts education gets a bad rap is that graduates tend to take some time—more time than STEM grads, anyway—to land in a career they love. According to a study from the Strada Education Foundation, it often isn’t until their second or third job that they hit their stride, satisfaction- and earnings-wise.

Yet there’s an argument to be made that pivots and swerves can be a good thing in terms of finding a career that really fits. “We consistently see in our feedback from SCC that the students really appreciate getting to hear about the varied career paths and different twists and turns our alums take after Vassar,” says Swanson.

And it’s the so-called soft skills students pick up at Vassar that make them particularly well suited to pivoting in today’s volatile, rapidly changing world. At SCC this past January, that’s essentially what Munish Dabas ’02, a UX Engineer Lead at Google Play Games, told sophomores attending the tech panel. “I said that the number-one thing I picked up from Vassar was how to teach myself new things, which is important, because your career will meander,” says Dabas, who majored in computer science. “All the designers and engineers I work with are so focused on their hard skills, and I am, too, but I can also tell an effective story, put together a compelling PowerPoint, and influence people. Those are all things I picked up at Vassar.”

Employers seem to agree, given that within six months of graduation, 93 percent of Vassar alums are either employed, continuing their education, or participating in a fellowship or year-of-service program.

More evidence that liberal arts leads to success: A 2018 survey by the American Association of Colleges and Universities of more than 1,000 business executives and hiring managers found that the skills they valued most highly in graduates were effective speaking and writing, critical thinking, ethical judgment, a knack for teamwork, and real-world practical experience—the latter of which Vassar grads pick up in spades. A full 90 percent of students have benefitted from an internship or other experiential learning opportunity by graduation, well above the national average, according to Bingham.

“I think where a liberal arts education comes in handy is as people get five to ten years into their careers and hit manager and director levels,” says Charles Kim ’92, cofounder of Third State Books, which focuses on publishing Asian American voices and stories. “That’s when you have to advocate for yourself and your ideas, taking disparate pieces of information from multiple sources and forming an opinion, then cogently arguing for that opinion.”

Kim traces that ability in himself to a French literature class taken his first year at Vassar. “My professor, Madame Kerr [Cynthia Kerr, who retired in 2020], not only taught us great books but showed us how to tell the difference between a good book and a great book,” says Kim. “And she did it with such warmth that she made us feel as if our opinions mattered. That and the small classes made it easy to speak freely in front of others, which ends up coming in handy in the corporate and nonprofit world.”

“The number-one thing I picked up from Vassar was how to teach myself new things, which is important, because your career will meander.”

Munish Dabas ’02
2024 SCC mentor and UX Engineer Lead at Google Play Games
Google’s Munish Dabas, class of 2002, advises students during a tech industry session at Sophomore Career Connections.
Anne Brewer ’04, who majored in cognitive science at Vassar but also had a passion for French literature and politics, did her own share of twisting and turning before landing in her current position as the Director of Public Engagement for the New York State Department of Finance: a stint in the Peace Corps; work on political campaigns; and, prior to her current position, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Public Engagement at the Department of Housing and Urban Development under the Biden administration.

Busy as she is, Brewer regularly picks up the phone to talk with recent grads interested in the public sector, making sure to tell them that Vassar and a liberal arts education will position them well for a career in public service. “Looking at the world with a wide lens, thinking critically, innovating—those are things Vassar instills and those are what we look for when we’re hiring,” she says.

Brewer is among the more than 250 alums who come back to campus in person (or virtually) every year to offer advice and wisdom to students. In 2019, she spoke on an SCC panel on public service with Liz Greenstein ’87, Chief of Staff for the NYC Mayor’s Office of Housing Recovery Operations, and Philip Cooke ’91, Associate Executive Director of Public Affairs for NYC Health + Hospitals/Harlem. The three didn’t know one another but they bonded over their shared paths—and decided that it would be a good idea to form a group for Vassar alums in city government and public service. Liz Greenstein spearheaded the effort, dubbing the group and enticing more than 30 people to turn out for their first happy hour, despite the pouring rain. “There were folks from different classes, all of us doing different things,” says Greenstein. “I know that someone from Vassar, with a liberal arts education, will be smart, thoughtful, and have their eyes and heart open to understanding the world.”

To meet those open eyes and open hearts, alum-driven programs will continue to help students launch. Charles Kim, who has done SCC four times and regularly mentors Asian American students from Vassar, emigrated from South Korea at age seven with his family, then settled in Maine, where his mother, who didn’t speak English, waited tables to support them. “Maine is 96 percent white—the second whitest state in the country—so there wasn’t much of an immigrant community,” Kim recalls. He did have his identical twin brother, Ray, however, and the two of them attended Vassar together, both on scholarships, both majoring in Asian studies and French literature. “From the minute we walked on campus, we felt like full members of the Vassar community,” says Kim.

At SCC, in particular, he appreciates the chance to “lift the veil on book publishing,” as he puts it. “I didn’t have anyone modeling what a career in publishing or writing could be; like many immigrant parents, my mom wanted me to be a lawyer or a doctor or an engineer,” he recalls. “No one says, ‘Go work in publishing!’ So, I like to let kids coming up know that there are really enjoyable, enriching, and satisfying careers in publishing, despite the challenges.”

Kim also relishes the chance connections with other Vassar alums—and the unexpected collaborations that can result. “A few years ago at SCC, I met Joshunda Sanders ’00 and we ended up working on a book together called I Can Write the World (Six Foot Press, 2019), about a girl growing up in the Bronx who becomes a journalist,” says Kim. “That’s one connection that led to the publication of a very successful children’s book.”

Hannah Van Demark, class of 2015, a Ford Scholar, and her faculty mentor, history professor Robert Brigham, sit at a table filled with books and papers in the Vassar Library.
History major Hannah Van Demark ’15 took advantage of several fellowships and mentoring opportunities at Vassar. As a Ford Scholar, she worked with history professor Robert Brigham conducting research on the International Criminal Court. “It was amazing to get a sense of what a career in academia might look like,” she says.
Madeline Zappala ’12
Alfonso Lopez ’92, Delegate and Democratic Whip in the Virginia House of Delegates, is also someone who came to Vassar without family connections or much money. “My father was one of 22 brothers and sisters; he was an immigrant success story. As a lower-middle-class kid who went to public school in Virginia, Vassar, to me, was a revelation,” says Lopez, who majored in political science. One of his favorite memories of his time at the College was when he “used to just sit back and listen to Sidney Plotkin [Professor of Political Science on the Margaret Stiles Halleck Chair] talk. In my speeches, I still quote lines from his lectures in Politics 101.”

Lopez, who is also a Senior Corporate and Government Relations Consultant at the law firm Becker & Poliakoff, P.A., credits the power of the Vassar network with helping him break into his dream career—and relatively quickly at that. In his first year of law school, he applied “on a whim” to be an intern for the Clinton White House. “I was preparing to go work at a law firm as a summer associate, but one of the people in the intern office happened to be a Vassar grad, so I ended up getting a summer position in the Domestic Policy Office, where I was working on the second floor of the West Wing at the ripe old age of 23. It changed my life,” he says. “After that, I knew I wanted to focus on policy, so I finished my classes at law school in five semesters and came back to the Clinton White House to work at the Council on Environmental Quality. But it was the relationships and connections I made through that first internship that launched me.”

Ultimately, though, it was his first-year professor, Sidney Plotkin, who convinced Lopez that it was time for him to run for office. “The two of us keep in touch; when I’m in town we’ll get coffee at the Acropolis and have a three-hour talk fest,” says Lopez. “So, one day, I called him up and I said, ‘Is it the right time to run?’ He told me it was—he had insight into me that I didn’t have into myself.”

Portrait of Stacy Bingham and Jannette Swanson together--two leaders in the Center for Career Education.
Through CCE programming, Stacy Bingham, Associate Dean of the College for Career Education, and Jannette Swanson, Director of External Engagement, and others in the Center for Career Education create “on-ramps” that funnel Vassar graduates into an unimaginable variety of careers.

Karl Rabe

Lopez won the election in 2012, becoming the first Latino Democrat elected to the Virginia General Assembly in 400 years.

That’s one reason he was so excited to pay it forward and return to campus to be an SCC mentor in January of 2024. “Between breakfast and lunch that first day, I got one student’s CV, two phone calls from students, and made seven new LinkedIn friends,” he said with a laugh. He welcomed them all. “When students get in touch, I always try to make time and repay the debt I owe to all the amazing Vassar people who touched my life in direct or indirect ways,” he muses. “Because of my education and the Vassar network, I’ve had a career beyond my wildest expectations.”

Paula Derrow writes frequently about health and social issues for magazines and nonprofits. She lives in New York City.