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Previous AOC Spotlights

We want to celebrate alumni from all walks of life who have interesting experiences to share with the community in their personal, political, and/or professional lives. This Q&A format feature will include both standard questions and questions specific to each featured alum. Want to recommend yourself or a friend for this spotlight? Submit your nomination here.

June Xie ’11 (November 2021)

June Xie ’11 is currently a senior food producer at and produces online recipe videos for the now viral series Budget Eats. The most popular Budget Eats video currently has more than 3.9 million views. Prior to working at Delish, June worked briefly as an educator in China and as a social worker in New York City, where she then made her start in the food industry working in numerous restaurant kitchens. June holds a bachelors in English literature and double minor in education and religion from Swarthmore College. 

What’s your story and how did you arrive at your profession?
So I feel like I performed a lot of trial and error, because I don’t have a life plan for myself — I’ve never had a life plan, actually. Right after graduation, I tried out education after doing a teaching fellowship in China, which eventually burned me out because of the demanding workload. After that, I became a social worker in New York after Hurricane Sandy, which also burned me out because of the “red tape” and bureaucracy. And so food was the last path that I wanted to experiment with and try out. I decided to start by working in New York City restaurant kitchens, which I did for four and half years. Of course, the pay and work culture was kind of terrible, and my body couldn’t withstand that sort of work for too long. I decided that I wanted to transition out of restaurants but still stay in the food industry, and that’s when I landed a job at Delish, which is a food media online digital outlet. 
Tell us about your work at Delish. What do you do?

Currently I produce a lot of recipes as well as cooking videos for Delish. What I’m best known for at Delish is hosting and creating the Budget Eats series on YouTube. It’s a show that’s had a little rise to fame during the pandemic, because it’s about how to eat on a budget and how to make use of everything that you have. 

Why do you think Budget Eats has gained popularity over the past year?
I’ve received a ton of messages from viewers explaining how Budget Eats has shifted their perspective about cooking. The video series doesn’t fall in line with the rest of food media in that it doesn’t dictate recipes to viewers. Instead, it’s about a process of cooking that concerns itself with figuring things out as you go with what you have. Budget Eats promotes cooking as a process filled with failure and things not always succeeding. I feel like people have resonated with that message, because it’s quietly rebellious against mainstream food culture and media.
So what about the food industry drew you to it?
I initially decided to try working in the food industry because I’ve always just been a glutton. I’ve always enjoyed stuffing my face with food and I wanted to see if I could turn something that I love into a profession. Food was really the last path I wanted to explore before trying to return back to my previous paths in education and social service. Coming out of college I tended to think it would be easy to learn how to make money out of passion, but that was definitely a long learning curve for me. Over time, I realized even when working in a field that you’re passionate about you still have to deal with things that are challenging and that you don’t like.
What about working in the food industry is challenging for you?
It’s been a very interesting last two years, because we started unionizing at Hearst, the parent company for Delish, right before the pandemic hit. Trying to unionize exposed the more corporate and political side of working in the food industry to me. I’ve since learned that there’s a dissonance between how the company treats its employees versus its outward-facing public relations and stated company values. Also I work at a corporation where a lot of my colleagues and editors-in-chief are white. As someone who isn’t white, I typically have different perspectives about food, because I grew up with Chinese immigrant parents. Having a different palate and culture conflicts in ways that I previously accepted but am recently trying to be more cognizant about.
Could you share how Swat has played a role in all of this? How has it helped shape your life professionally and personally?
I think a lot of the stuff I took away from Swat was theory, much of which came from the Religion courses that I took. I remember taking Visions of Self and Nature with Ellen Ross and Post-Modern Religious Thought with Mark Wallace, and a lot of the readings from those courses impacted me deeply. This realization of how society forces us to splinter ourselves came out of those readings, which didn’t fully hit me until about eight or nine years out of graduation. A lot of these are abstract ideas, but it’s really the abstractions that have stayed with me. It’s all been formative about how I view myself in the world. For me — and I say this with pride — I’m kind of a weirdo. I don’t maintain much of a boundary between my professional self and personal self, because I find it can be difficult to code-switch between the two. In a sense, the act of separating my professional and personal self “enslaves me” and makes me feel ashamed of myself in a lot of ways.
Any advice would you share with current and future alumni of color?
My advice to anyone of any background is to sit with yourself. If you have conflicting feelings that stress you out and give you anxiety, just sit and breathe and have a conversation about what actually fulfills you. It’s taken me a long time to do that, and I wish I would have done it sooner because maybe I would have enjoyed my twenties a lot more!

Heather Hightower '09 (April 2021)

Heather Hightower '09

Tell us about yourself and where you work. 

I work at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC) as a clinical nurse. MSKCC mostly deals with patients with cancer but also provides treatment for patients with blood disorders. I’ve worked at MSKCC for six years — two years in women’s oncology and four years in pediatrics, which is my current unit. The pediatrics unit predominantly treats children with cancer. I say “predominantly” because our unit also treats patients who started treatment as children, so our patients range anywhere from 2 days old to 45 years old. We provide a number of treatments for our patients, including bone marrow transplants, chemotherapy, blood transfusions, surgeries, immunotherapies, and other treatments undergoing clinical trial testing. 

What does your typical workday look like as a clinical nurse at MSKCC?

A typical day for me starts off with a report on my patients from the night nurse. I usually work with two to three patients, depending on the severity of their health condition. My daily report is crucial, because it informs what I need to do the entire day to take care of my kids, whether that means preparing them for the O.R. or a bone marrow transplant, providing postoperative care, or administering a platelet transfusion. No day is ever the same. Of course, we deal with unexpected health issues, like if a kid has a reaction to medication and they need to be sent to the ICU. Things of that sort can happen at any moment, because our kids are really sick. 

That sounds like scary stuff. How do you manage to work through that?

It is scary, but I’ve become used to it. When you look at our patients, they are among the sickest of the sick, and oftentimes have rare cancers and disorders that are not well-known. These kids sometimes come to the MSKCC because we offer what is considered to be among the best-level treatment in the world. These kids are not your typical leukemia or cancer patients — they are dealing with super-complicated diseases and disorders that failed other treatments. Sadly, they often come to us as a last-ditch effort to have a chance at getting access to clinical trial treatments that can potentially help cure and save them.

You previously mentioned you worked in women’s oncology. Why did you switch to pediatric care?

So I was a high school teacher before I became a nurse. I loved working with teenagers — I loved their curiosity, I loved to witness them finding themselves and developing on their individual journey. I eventually decided to leave teaching, because it became too much for me. I was working with immigrant students who were struggling with learning English while being told they had to pass standardized exams in order to graduate from high school. I felt really burned out and wanted a change. But I still wanted to work in a field that centered on compassion and advocacy and education. I saw all of those facets in nursing, so that’s where I gravitated. 
I mentioned that when I first started as a clinical nurse that I worked in women’s oncology. But I started missing being around kids — I missed those little fun moments that they have, even in the face of frustration and adversity. Being around my kids, I see such resilience, and that helps me experience a little more happiness in the day-to-day. 

It’s undoubtable that you’re doing important work. So how has COVID-19 had an impact on you and your patients?

The pandemic has been really tough on our unit. Normally, when kids are admitted, both parents are at their bedside and, depending on their age, siblings and friends can also visit. But once the pandemic started, visitors were no longer allowed, and only one parent was allowed to be present at bedside. So imagine being a patient feeling so isolated from your loved ones while going through treatment, and imagine a parent having to be the only one with their sick child for weeks on end. It was tough on everyone. In the beginning, parents weren’t even allowed to leave the hospital room at all, not even to buy food or get a change of clothes. Over time, the hospital started allowing for parents to leave for short durations and switch off with another parent or guardian every week. It was clear that parents were becoming emotionally exhausted.
What’s worse is that we also had to cut back on the patients that we took into the hospital once the pandemic began. We had to delay treatment and surgeries to care for patients already in our care or patients who contracted COVID-19. We recently resumed taking in patients whose treatment and surgeries were delayed, and now we are seeing the negative effects on their health. We also had to operate with a skeleton crew of staff, so there were very few resources and activities for the kids to participate in. We normally have child-life specialists who play games with the kids or host events and activities to help reduce stress and help them acclimate them to the hospital. It was hard being without those specialists.

How have you been getting by, and how have you been helping your patients get by?

Well, now all of our hospital is vaccinated. We also have our child-life specialists, psychologist, and psychiatrist back, so there is more support for kids and parents. Treatments and surgeries are no longer delayed as much. It all feels a bit easier. But in terms of getting by, when in the hospital, I tried to spend more time with my patients. I would read to them and play games, because otherwise it was just them and their parental guardian alone all day. Us nurses were the only other people they were talking to. 
But honestly, it wasn’t just me helping those kids get by — they helped me get by. I definitely relied on the support of my friends and family to process all the stress I was dealing with at work — yoga became crucial for me. But sometimes I got by because of my patients. They are really, really cute and adorable, and they are so smart and so curious. Sometimes they forget that they are sick and just talk to you like a normal 5-year-old, eager to do things like watch TikTok videos with you or share their candy, and it’s like, “Yes! I will totally eat some Twizzlers with you!” And with the babies — some of their first steps they take are with us, or the first words they say are with us, or they learn how to eat Cheerios on their own for the first time with us. Seeing those milestones happen is one thing, but seeing those milestones happen for a kid who is sick and is in the hospital, it's … it’s just awe-inspiring and consoling.

So let’s go back to Swarthmore. What, if anything, from Swarthmore helped prepare you for your current life and professional path?

When I started out at Swarthmore, I wanted to be premed and was set on becoming a doctor. But after freshman year, I barely made it through chemistry and quickly changed my goal of becoming a doctor. While figuring out what I was going to do, I changed my major so many times. First, I became a classics major and started taking Latin and Greek. Then I tried majoring in sociology, but the thought of writing a thesis scared me. After that, I briefly tried to major in astrophysics. So when it came time to actually declare a major and stick with it so I could graduate on time, I declared a major in religion and a minor in Black studies. If I look back and think about how I became a nurse, my current career path really started out with me being a teacher. So Swarthmore gave me the ability to change my mind about what I want to pursue and find a way to make it work. I feel like that ability has always been a blessing — I have always been open to opportunity, open to change, and open to the idea of pursuing something new. To give an example, even as a nurse, I am constantly seeking opportunities outside of my normal work responsibilities. I participate in several committees, and I have picked up a research fellowship in the nursing department and am now doing nursing-based research. Swarthmore nurtured that inclination in me to adapt and be flexible.

So any food for thought or words of wisdom for current and future alumni of color?

Honestly, and this is related to what I was previously talking about regarding what I learned from Swarthmore, if you want to try something new, then just try it. If you have an interest, read about it, research it, and just do it. That’s something that I think will resonate with a lot of people after having experienced life in this pandemic. Many of us have felt so stuck this past year, so if there is something that you have been wanting to pursue, then now is the time to do it.

Dr. Ruth Perry '78 (Oct. 2020)

Ruth Perry '78Dr. Ruth Perry ’78 is currently a practicing physician with CityMD in New York City. Prior to joining CityMD, she served in various executive leadership roles at Big Heart Technologies, the Trenton Health Team (THT), and the Rohm & Haas Company. Dr. Perry is board certified in Internal Medicine and Emergency Medicine and holds degrees from Swarthmore College and Temple University School of Medicine. She is a classical music pianist and an avid supporter of the cultural arts, loves to travel and photograph her experiences. She is mother of two adult daughters, Kendall and Courtney Walton. 

Tell me about yourself. 

I’m a native Philadelphian, a physician board certified in emergency medicine and internal medicine, and a mother of two adult daughters, Kendall Taylor Walton, age 31, and Courtney Eleanor Walton, age 29. I love gardening, and I love music. 

Tell me more about your passion for gardening. How did you get into it? 

My mother was the youngest of nine children. My Aunt Helen lived in the same house where my mother and all her siblings were raised. They would grow crops and flowers atop the hill behind the house. As a little girl I was amazed by the beauty and diversity of the gardens, so I would ask to take a flower with me when I left her house. 

As a child, I spent my summers with Aunt Helen. Every evening she would ask, “What do you want to eat for dinner?” I would tell her and she would say, “Okay, let’s go up the hill and pick it.” Corn, potatoes, string beans, tomatoes — you name it, it was in the garden. 

As a result of these experiences I had an early sense of where food came from and how the earth can actually sustain us. It was always a fascination, but that’s where it started. As a teenager, I grew houseplants, and once I became an adult and had my own homes I grew vegetables and flowers. If I touched it, it grew. 

Can you tell me a little bit more about what you do? 

I have had a mix of clinical jobs and administrative jobs. I was an ER physician at Albert Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia when I finished my residency. I was there for seven years and was an Associate Professor of Medicine at Temple University Medical School (my alma mater).
I had my daughters while I was working in the ER. One day, my oldest daughter, Kendall, asked, “So, Mommy, are you going to go work in the day and sleep in the night, or work in the night and sleep in the day?” I was amazed by her observation as she was only 3 years old. So I thought it was time to make a change. 

The Rohm and Haas Company was recruiting a medical director for their Bristol site and I was the successful candidate for the role. I thought that I would be there for five years, but five turned into 17. In the process, I learned a lot about business. I like to say that I received the poor woman’s MBA from that experience. After 17 years, Rohm and Haas was acquired by The Dow Chemical Company in 2009. They wanted me to join the company but that meant relocating to Midland, Mich., which held no appeal. Plus, I’m an only child, and both my parents were in assisted living. I decided to retire and take time off, because I had never taken any time off. 

I spent time with both my parents and traveled before they died in 2010. After that, there was an opening in Trenton, New Jersey, with the Trenton Health Team, which is a community health improvement organization, that evolved into an Accountable Care Organization serving the Medicaid population as part of a New Jersey State Demonstration Project. I became the Executive Director and grew the organization from one employee to 16 employees and secured over $12 million in funding over four and a half years. We developed some very innovative programs in those four years. However, to become an accountable care organization, you have to have the insurance payers involved. They were very interested in learning from us, but they didn’t want to commit in full. You can’t really have an accountable care organization if the payer doesn’t want to be involved. So I decided that I had accomplished everything that I wanted to do and chose to retire again and take a little time off. 

In July, 2016 I accepted a role in New York City and moved to Jersey City, NJ. I currently work for CityMD, the largest urgent care group in New York City. We provide some primary care, and ER-type work to adults and children. I started there in April of 2019, and practiced through New York City’s COVID-19 crisis. It is unbelievable to me and my friends that I would practice medicine in a pandemic this late in my medical career. 

My friend, May Thomas, MD, Swarthmore (Class of ’76) said, “Ruth, so how does it feel finishing up your career in the middle of a pandemic?” I said, “If someone had told me that, I would never have believed it.” But I’m blessed that I did it, because I needed a way to channel my anger with how this has been handled politically. And I said, “You know, instead of complaining, ranting, and raving, and whining — and I really like to whine — I might as well go out there, be a part of it, and try to help the people as best as I can.”

New York went into lockdown in March, and it was a ghost city. You have no idea. Native New Yorkers repeatedly said, “this is not New York!” You could go to Madison Square Garden, or 42nd Street, or the theater district, and see nothing. No lights, no noise, and no people. It was eerie. It was just eerie. Usually, I work in Lower Manhattan, but they sent me up to Central Harlem during the lockdown. As we have come to learn, COVID-19 hit people of color so very hard. Every morning there were people lined up in front of and around the corner of our West 146th Street site waiting to be seen and receive care. Many patients walked in with low oxygen saturations. Oxygen saturations between 96% to 100% would be considered normal. There were many patients with oxygen saturations of 91%, 88%, 84%, 77%, and their chest x-rays revealed the ground glass appearance of lungs consistent with COVID-19 pneumonia. Some x-rays showed the lungs almost whited out, case after case, after case, after case. 

What keeps you up at night? 
Right now, our national politics keep me up at night, or if not keeping me up at night, gives me mental churn. The negative discourse or lack of discourse, the eroding of democracy, the blatant racism and misogyny – that keeps me up at night. Other than that, thinking about my kids might keep me up, especially when they were younger or trying to solve a professional or personal problem. 

What are you nerdy about? 
I guess within my passions and interests, I’d have to say I can be nerdy about everything. I can’t say it’s just one thing that I’m nerdy about. I could see something, read something, or hear something, and if I don’t know what it is, I’ll go look it up and dig into it a bit. 

I saw an article containing some new information they uncovered about Stonehenge not too long ago which piqued my interest. I know very little about archeology, but I love history and always wanted to see Stonehenge. I have always been in awe of how early people moved and erected these massive stones and wondered about their symbolism and use. Several years ago I was in the British Virgin Islands and asked about a tree that looked a lot like a crabapple tree. I learned that this was the Manchineel Tree. Every aspect of the tree is poisonous to humans. Apparently Christopher Columbus’ crew found this out the hard way. When I returned home I had to read all about this tree which does not wish to be disturbed. 
What’s good? 
Working in the midst of the pandemic and not contracting COVID-19. My significant other has not caught COVID nor my two daughters. I’m profoundly grateful and happy about that. This pandemic has really forced us to be happy with simple things, like our health. My significant other and I started playing board games, ones I haven’t played since childhood, like Monopoly. That has been a lot of fun and that is good. Very good.

Twan Claiborne '07 (June 2020)

Twan Claiborne '07 Twan Claiborne ’07 hails from Seattle, Wash. by way of Lake Providence, La. Currently residing in Harlem, they are an edutainer — an educator and entertainer — working as a learning specialist and drag performer. Outside of work, they enjoy seeing the sights of New York City, dancing, drawing, playing recreational sports, and exercising.

Tell me about yourself.
I am currently living in New York. I am teaching and doing drag on the side. There’s a lot that gets me out of bed besides my alarm clock: trying to better the world. I get excited about the opportunity to do that, whether it’s a particular lesson that day or if it's a performance later that day.

Can you tell me about your work in education and how that intersects with your personal identity and drag?
I’ve been an educator for the last eight years. I started off as an admissions counselor for four years, then pursued my master's in special education, and then worked in high school in small groups. It organically fits into who I am as a person. With education, I’m paid to do it, and it’s so laborious and an emotional process — like the intersection of being black and queer. I learn how to adapt to situations that work with different people to provide them what they need and it extends in drag. Drag, as it was founded in the U.S., is a political force. Drag queens became the messengers as the LGBTQ movement started happening because they were on the fringe. That’s a position of educating people within the community and inciting people with knowledge and entertainment. 

Can you tell me more about drag?
My drag name is Kenya Keep Up. I started with Somali Rose, my favorite scent as a child, then it changed to Lala Lingua when I was a linguistics major. I changed to Kenya Keep Up three years ago. When I was a kid, my mom was a snazzy dresser, so I would borrow her heels and wear her pom poms as a wig. Being a man, I challenge how I’m perceived as a male-bodied and male-appearing person. Going against the grain has always been part of my life and feels natural to me. Drag encourages me to be braver than I am in my life. As a person who likes to be comfortable, it’s very scary, but drag makes it less fearful to take those risks and explore my identity. I identify now as non-binary, and that came up because of me being into the drag world. In many aspects of my life, I can educate people. I can dance, sing, and act — things I’ve always done on the side. I want to do [drag] officially as a career. I get to dress up and wear costumes, be precise and intentional about it, and be fantastical about it. That I can’t do at school, and I can’t get up at 4 a.m. and do makeup for two hours. I would get to do everything I’m doing times 10, all in one package. 
What keeps you up at night? 
What literally keeps me up at night is watching Survivor. I love Survivor and reality shows. I will also watch YouTube. I love countdowns, like the top 10 craziest food challenges around that world. I’m also a very empathic person. If something happens that day and I haven’t come to the conclusion I needed to, it’ll keep me up at night. Coming back to school after break also keeps me up. 
What do you think about when someone says Swarthmore?
Oh my gosh, I think of so much. When I think of Swarthmore, I think of talking. We talk so much. I also think of passion, the passion we have that leads us to talk ad nauseum. I think of discomfort as well. For a space that likes to make us comfortable, there’s a lot of people who like to make us uncomfortable. I’ve been comfortable and uncomfortable at the same time. I think of transformation. 
What are you nerdy about?
Video games and anime. I’ve been playing video games since childhood. It’s been part of my entire life. For anime, in middle school, we got an opportunity to take a language. Everyone took Spanish but I wanted to be different. I like to be contrarian. I decided to take Japanese, and I watched Dragonball Z and Sailor Moon. I’m very nerdy about languages: the history of languages, how certain sounds are made, and how language evolves. I like using words, I like word play. Dictionaries and thesauruses are my friends. I’m also nerdy about makeup because of drag. The different brushes you can use to paint, the different brands, the different products — highly pigmented, powder, and cream. I’m also nerdy about dance in all of its forms, and chemistry. 
What do you think of community at Swarthmore? 
There was conversation (and still ongoing) on campus during my time about creating safe spaces and what that meant. Now, there’s envisioning spaces as brave spaces. With the rebranding about brave spaces, students are pushed against what it means to be safe, outside of that space but also within that space. Kimberly Crenshaw explores the notion of intersectionality. We can be a safe space for Asian students, but with the Asian diaspora enter conflicts between Asian Americans who grew up in the U.S. vs Asians who are first-gen or immigrants, and what does that mean. Language influences culture and identity and who gets to talk about it. Within the community I’m part of now and as I’ve been removed from Swat, we talk about spaces being brave and being whole, as complete people, and not having to shut off parts of yourself or others. We push against that narrative. When I think of community, I now think of its holisticness.