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Living the Liberal Arts

He knows the meaning of mentorship

Sean Decatur ’90 credits his intellectual awakening to Swarthmore.

“I got incredibly excited about learning as a student there,” he says. “I left with the notion that I wanted to be in a liberal arts environment and have the opportunity to influence the lives of students.”

And that’s precisely what he did.

First as a professor and associate dean at Mount Holyoke College, then as a dean at Oberlin College before taking his current position in 2013 as president of Kenyon College, Decatur has devoted his career to higher education.

His Swarthmore experience continues to shape his perspective. A biology and chemistry major and Black studies minor, he says his science courses taught him the importance of persistence and close observation, while his Introduction to African American Studies class was a “transformative” experience.

“It was the first time I began to make deep personal connections between texts and personal experience,” says Decatur, one of the first participants (with Garikai Campbell ’90) in the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship Program, which supports minority students who wish to enter doctoral programs and pursue professorships.

“The Mellon Mays scholarship was a wonderful opportunity that introduced me to what academic life could be,” he says. “The program supported my summer research in the Chemistry Department, and connected me with others on campus and at other institutions who were considering graduate study.”

As an undergraduate, Decatur founded a volunteer literacy program in Chester. The program was a rich learning environment, he says, that pushed him out of his comfort zone: “It was powerful to build relationships with folks that were different from my classmates.”

His relationships with mentors, too, have been essential to his life experience. “You need to collect mentors who can impact different aspects of your life,” he says. “The most effective mentors were folks who took interest in me as a person and were willing to share their own experiences.”

One particular influence at Swarthmore was Chuck James, now the Sara Lawrence Lightfoot Professor Emeritus of English Literature, who taught a course on the Harlem Renaissance that Decatur called “fantastic.” James was also Decatur’s first adviser in the Mellon Mays program.

“[Dr. James] and his wife, Jane, were incredibly gracious and supportive to me and the other Mellon fellows,” Decatur says, “and his advice was very important to my future career choices.”

Decatur recalls, as a student, how much he relished getting to know professors, like James, outside the classroom. Those types of connections are something he’s worked to continue with student leaders at Kenyon.

Decatur is dedicated to making Kenyon a “truly inclusive” place where all students can thrive—identifying places of hidden bias and unfair advantage that serve as barriers to student success.

“The biggest challenge for higher education today is cost and accessibility,” he says. “Many very talented students are finding themselves shut out from financial opportunities to get a quality education.

“There is a huge value in the basics of a liberal arts education,” he adds. “The ability to solve problems, to understand information from a range of different sources, to write effectively, and communicate well: These are things that serve students well regardless of where they find themselves in the future.”