Take Five with Stephanie Spencer ’89

SS head shot
Stephanie Spencer ’89 is the director of teaching and learning for Vashon Island School District in Washington state. Spencer has been an educator for 30 years; she earned an M.Ed. in curriculum and instruction in 1998 and an Ed.D. in educational leadership in 2003, both from Seattle Pacific University. She lives with her son, two cats and a puppy on Vashon Island.

What you were like when you arrived at Columbia?

I was pretty overwhelmed by NYC and I was already having significant doubts about leaving my family behind on the West Coast. After a challenging flight out, my father and I took a taxi to campus and the ride was wild — the driver was tailgating, weaving in and out of traffic, speeding through lights. Along the way, I noticed litter and graffiti scattered about and homeless people tucked in the entryways of buildings and along the sidewalks. All I kept thinking was “What am I doing here?” By the time we arrived at campus I was completely stressed and exhausted. Now, I just laugh about it — obviously, when we get a bit of life behind us, we gain better perspective. But in the moment when I first stepped foot on campus, I was not my best self.

Thankfully, I had the women’s cross-country and track & field teams — they became instant “family.” And once classes started, I found that I could hold my own and I settled into a nice routine.

What do you remember about your first-year living situation?

I was on the third floor of McBain, facing Broadway. Many of my floormates were involved in sports as well, so we saw a lot of each other at Dodge. Living in McBain made me feel very independent as it was a full three blocks away from the main entrance of campus. I remember how difficult it was to sleep at first because the city was excessively noisy, 24-7 — very, very different than my rural home on Vashon Island. I remember my first trip home after spending a semester away — I couldn’t sleep because it was too quiet!

I relocated to the all-female 13th floor of Carman before the start of second semester. My room was the last at the end of the hall, facing downtown; the view from my window was absolutely amazing, so I didn’t care that I was living in a cinderblock echo chamber. I remember older students always pulling the fire alarm during midterms and finals. Being the daughter of a career fireman, I dutifully exited the building each time — my quads and hams got quite a workout on the stairs!

In those days, I wrote a lot of letters — it was how we all kept in touch pre-email, pre-texting, pre-social media. The mailroom located in Carman was a lifeline for many of us.

What class do you most remember and why?

In the spring of my freshman year, I took Art Humanities. We were instructed to create a collage; I made mine on the inside of an apple sauce jar. I used a permanent pen to color half the lid black while the other half remained white. I used some of my old track spikes to cover the bottom. When it was time for the class to select a project to analyze, mine was chosen. I felt completely validated as an “artist” and appreciated having the opportunity to be creative in a way other than writing. I also remember going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the very first time and experiencing the Impressionist paintings I had only ever seen in books. The colors, the textures, the scale were all so impressive. I spent hours studying the paintings from multiple perspectives, not as part of my assignment, but just to soak it all in.

Did you have a favorite spot on campus, and what did you like about it?

I greatly enjoyed Butler Library. If I felt social, I would go to the reading room. Contrary to its name, no one worked seriously in there; it was a place to gather and “study” while enjoying lively conversation. The reading room had really old wooden card catalogs, furniture and finishes — it had history. But if I needed to focus, I spent time in the study room across from the entrance to the stacks. It was a bright open room with a very scholarly atmosphere. Being surrounded by books always made me feel a little bit smarter.

What, if anything, about your College experience would you do over?

I would have spent more time getting to know the professional foodservice crew at John Jay. I worked there my first two years on campus before I discovered that I could choose a less physically demanding work-study job. I did learn some great recipes like chicken cordon bleu and baked ziti, which I still prepare from time to time. But I didn’t ask my co-workers about their life stories, which was ultimately the more important knowledge to have acquired.

Otherwise, I have often said I would redo my Columbia experience in a heartbeat. It’s why I trek across the country every five years to participate in Reunion Weekend — all of the perks, with no stress of papers, projects, midterms or finals!