After more than 50 years of service to the University of Redlands, Vice President for External Affairs and Dean Emerita Char Burgess ’69, ’70 recently spoke at a virtual meeting of the Maroon and Grey Student Ambassadors, which supports the goals of the Advancement Division and the mission of the U of R by developing relationships with the University and greater community. As Burgess prepares to retire in December, she shared the following reflections on her time at Redlands with the group.
I graduated from the University of Redlands in 1969 (back in the Dark Ages) with a major in psychology. It was during the Vietnam War, and U of R was starting a new master's program in higher education and counseling, so I decided to take advantage of that opportunity. I thought, “Wow, what an opportunity to enroll in this cool program and see how I like it.” That’s how I learned that I love student life, and, for 48 years, I worked in that area at the University, 23 as dean of student life, and 14 serving as both vice president and dean.
It was a challenging time at the beginning, although I’m not sure if it’s any different from the challenges everyone faces when they’re graduating. I started my first job at $3,000 a year, which was a lot at that time. You couldn't get an apartment in Redlands if you were a single woman, because you were considered a big risk. They were afraid you would get married and leave your lease, so four of us rented a place in San Bernardino.
When I started in Student Life, only 10 percent of the people involved in that kind of work were women, and most were white men. Now, if you attend conferences in the student life arena, you will see tremendous diversity, a preponderance of women, and mostly people of color. It has really changed dramatically over the last 50 years. As I was retiring from student life three years ago, the [U of R] President [Ralph Kuncl] asked me if I would work in development, because I knew everybody who had come through the school, so I’ve been doing that for the last three years.
I've tremendously enjoyed having this great career. Many people asked me why I stayed. I had opportunities to work on the East Coast, but one of the major reasons I stayed was because I had met the person to whom I've been married for 47 years (U of R Trustee Larry Burgess ’67). That said, I would say there are three other real reasons that I stayed at Redlands.
The first reason is the students. Redlands students are unique—they are very bright, but also caring and people-oriented. There's little pretentiousness. When I talk to people at other schools who work with students, often they will talk about the pretentiousness that some of their students exhibit, but I've never really found that with Redlands students, who are generally genuine.
Redlands is not perfect. It's a place that's continually trying to be better, and all of us have an opportunity to be part of that. There’s a real gift in going to a school where you can make a contribution and where people look for the ideas that you bring. Maintaining the status quo is so boring, because you're really not having that opportunity to grow and change with the institution, to be an influencer and a leader. All of those things exist at Redlands.
The third reason I stayed was living in the City of Redlands. It's a terrific community where people really appreciate the opportunity to be involved and to make things happen, and I've always loved to make things happen. Town and Gown is a great example of the opportunity we have to share the town with the gown with one another.
Whether you're a student or an employee at Redlands, it's so important to maintain your sense of humor. I saw a cartoon of two women, both librarians, having a debate about filing the 2020 Year in Review. One says, “Well, let's file it in the fiction section, Irene, because nobody is going to believe all that actually happened.” Having a sense of humor is so important because it's so easy to think everything is bad and negative, but if you have a sense of humor, you can really approach life with a different attitude.
It is important is to think of yourself as a storyteller and work on honing those characteristics. If you think about what we do every day, we're storytellers. We talk about things that have happened to us, to our friends, to other people. We're telling stories. I have a little story that was written by a Yale graduate, who, unfortunately, a week after she graduated, was killed in an auto accident. She was a writer and composed a piece called “The Opposite of Loneliness”:
“We don't have a word for the opposite of loneliness, but if we did, I could say that it's what I want in life. What I'm grateful and thankful to have found in college, and what I'm scared of losing when we wake up tomorrow, after commencement and leave this place. It's not quite love. It's not quite community. It's just this feeling that there are people, an abundance of people who are in this together, who are on your team, when the check is paid and you stay at the table when it's 4 a.m. and no one goes to bed, that night with the guitar. That night we can't remember. That time we did, we went, we saw, we laughed, we felt. College is full of tiny circles, [which] we pull around ourselves, groups, sports teams, houses, halls, clubs, these tiny groups that make us feel loved and safe and part of something even on our loneliest nights, when we stumble home to our computers, partnerless, tired, awake—we won't have those next year. We won't live in the same hall as all our friends, we won't have a bunch of group texts. This scares me more than finding the right job, city, or spouse. I'm scared of losing this web we’re in. This elusive, indefinable opposite of loneliness, this feeling I feel right now.”
We’re constantly trying to reawaken that spirit in our graduates, telling them stories that help them bring that back, think about what the University is like now, and reawaken in them the excitement of having been at Redlands.
[At the same time], it's important to manage and maintain a sense of anticipation. I’ve always felt like the best is yet to be. I was fortunate to chair the University’s Centennial in 2006 and 2007. We had this fabulous year of 75 events. I don't know what we would have done if COVID-19 had struck at that time, but we were fortunate. Shelli [Stockton, Director of Alumni and Community Relations] was one of the people working on that project with me, and we had such a great time. My favorite picture that I always carry in my mind is that of January 1, 2007. We were audacious enough as this little college to have a float in the Tournament of Roses Parade, and we had a tremendous time decorating it. About 500 people spent the night in Pasadena, sitting in the stands and watching. Someone took a picture of the Redlands crowd from the street as our float rounded the corner at Orange Grove Boulevard, heading down Colorado Boulevard. Our stands were filled with Bulldogs who were looking up the street in marvelous pride and anticipation of what they were about to see… the smiles, the excitement, and the thrill of knowing that the best was yet to be.
The U of R for me will always be that—whether it's a student on the first day, a professor teaching a brand-new class, or a student with a dream, the opportunity that we have to step out and be so audacious as to have a Rose Parade float. Redlands is a pretty amazing place. To know that we are part of this place together and we're always thinking about how we can make it better—not everybody gets to do that. All of that is what makes Redlands special, and what makes you a Bulldog for Life.
To learn more about alumni and community events at the University of Redlands, visit www.redlands.edu/alumni.