A Sense of Self
Wilma Lewis '78
Swarthmore was my first real adventure living in a world that was different from the one to which I was accustomed: the small island of St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, where I grew up. Despite a solid foundation-close family ties, a loving and supportive upbringing, graduation from a highly regarded private school with high honors and as valedictorian of my senior class, numerous athletics awards, and active church and community involvement-I found myself facing this new adventure with some trepidation. I couldn't help wondering just where, and how, this 18-year-old kid from the Caribbean would fit in. I couldn't help questioning whether I would be able to compete academically and in other ways at an institution like Swarthmore College.
As I reflect on my four years at Swarthmore, I realize that there are several principles that guide my life today that can be traced, at least in part, to the sense of self that I developed as I navigated this new world. Some of these principles include the words of St. Francis De Sales, who said, "Do not wish to be anything but what you are, and try to be that perfectly"; the thoughts of Mary McLeod Bethune, who emphasized the importance of having a "strong belief in ourselves and our possibilities"; and the insights of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who reminded us that "What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us." By successfully navigating the Swarthmore environment-graduating with distinction and Phi Beta Kappa, receiving the Joshua Lippincott Fellowship, lettering in three varsity sports, participating in other extracurricular activities, and making lifelong friends-I was well on my way to cultivating that sense of self that would enable me to embrace these principles and shape my world.
There are many experiences that I had at Swarthmore that were likely contributors to this outcome. Perhaps it started at the very beginning, when my parents and I met Swarthmore alumna Barbara Pearson Lange [Godfrey] '31 at a freshman orientation gathering. Mrs. Lange was the daughter of Paul Pearson, the first civilian governor of the Virgin Islands and a former professor at Swarthmore to whom my father had often referred in encouraging me to attend the College. Maybe our chance encounter with Mrs. Lange, with her ties to the Virgin Islands, gave me my first sense of "belonging."
Possibly, it was the selfless dedication of members of the faculty, such as Professor David Rosen, who conducted voluntary study sessions every Tuesday and Thursday, when our freshman math class was not in session. As was typical of the Swarthmore faculty, Professor Rosen gave that something extra to encourage us to develop our abilities to the fullest.
Perhaps it was the personal interest in my development shown by members of the administration. Assistant Dean Janet Dickerson, for example, always found time to invite my roommate and me into her office just to chat-sometimes for hours-when she saw us wandering the halls of Parrish during our freshman year.
Maybe the courage to reach to the outer limits of my capabilities was fostered by the extremely high academic standards to which we were held by our incredibly talented faculty and the gentle prodding to go even beyond from such people as Associate Provost Gil Stott, whose words of encouragement led to my application for a Rhodes Scholarship.
Perhaps it was the stimulating discussions-both in and out of the classroom-among the intellectually gifted students, which taught me to appreciate the diversity of opinions while also valuing my own individual contribution.
Possibly, my sense of self was fueled by the opportunity to celebrate and share the African American heritage at a predominantly white institution through membership in the Swarthmore College Gospel Choir, which performed to standing-room-only crowds at the Friends Meetinghouse and whose members were always made to feel very special-both individually and collectively-by the undying support of our most loyal fan, Ann Geer, a College employee.
Maybe I was influenced by the spirit of healthy competition derived from playing varsity basketball, tennis, and volleyball at an institution that allowed us to develop and showcase our athletic skills but also to learn that there is more to the game than the final score and more to the season than the won-lost record.
Whatever the combination of factors, the rich Swarthmore experience has fueled a continuing desire to develop my own talents and abilities, a passion for reaching deep within to give my very best, and the courage to face new challenges with a strong belief in myself and my possibilities. I relied on this sense of self in pursuing my legal education at Harvard; in rising to the challenge of serving for almost three years as inspector general of the U.S. Department of the Interior, managing and supervising a headquarters office and 11 field offices; in assuming the daunting role of U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia for more than three years, leading the largest of the country's 93 U.S. attorney's offices, with more than 350 assistant U.S. attorneys, an equal number of support staff, and the unique responsibility of serving as both federal and local prosecutor; and now, in navigating the world of private practice as a partner at Crowell & Moring LLP in Washington, D.C.
When I think about Swarthmore, I have lots to be thankful for because the College has contributed immeasurably to the person I am today.
Wilma Lewis, who served as U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, is now in private practice in Washington, D.C.