Nancy Hughes ’74 surprised the president of the Alumnae Association and Alumnae Director over lunch recently. As Anya Herz Shiva ’88 prepared to talk about The 1892 Society and planned giving at Spence, Nancy leaned back in her chair, smiled and said: “I have to tell you something. Spence has been in my will since I was 28 years old!”
Nancy is a true exemplar of a Spence alumna: pursuing life with passion, high aspiration and care. Upon graduation from Spence she “entered college thinking I wanted to do something in art history,” noting how inspired she was by Ms. Scolari. But after earning her bachelor’s degree from Bryn Mawr in 1978, she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do next. Opportunity soon arrived, though, in the form of the offer of a temporary position working in the vanguard of interactive media and computing—a position that soon became full time and led to other, larger positions with some of the early innovators in educational media. However, “I wasn’t a technologist,” she says, and after some years, she found herself unsatisfied and thinking about making a change.
Then one day she happened to read a journal article in which the author argued that child-rearing customs are one of the engines that drive history. “Something clicked for me,” Nancy says, “and I sort of dropped everything and applied to get a degree in social work. I knew I wanted to work with kids.” She received her degree in social work at NYU, did a post-graduate fellowship at Yale and entered the field. She has worked at the Yale Child Study Center, as director of a clinic in Yonkers, and at New Alternatives for Children. Nowadays, she is working on a grant project at Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College focused on introducing social work graduate students to issues of child trauma.
When asked what parts of her education have meant the most to her, she excitedly notes that “the most practical, useful thing I got both from Spence and Bryn Mawr was writing. Being able to express myself clearly, and being in work situations where I see what a difference it makes when people don’t or can’t express themselves clearly, is a huge thing.” She goes on to describe the breadth and depth of what she learned at Spence. “I don’t think my mind has ever been as plastic and as open as it was. … I’m grateful for everything I absorbed during that period.”
She places the heaviest emphasis, however, on the quality of teaching. “The main thing for me was that the faculty was so amazing. I enjoyed it at the time, but I didn’t realize how unique that was until I got to college and there were all these smart, super-academically competent women at Bryn Mawr, and when we talked about our school experiences, most people had one or two sort of mentor teachers that they felt really cared about them, and the rest of school was just something they had to get through. But [at Spence] 99 percent of the faculty were fantastic.”
She vividly recalls how passionate the teachers were about what they were teaching, and how that in turn caused her and her classmates to open themselves up to things they might not have normally considered—from Latin to Shakespeare to Romantic poetry and from satire to the Bible as literature. “I’m not sure why I took Latin,” she says, “but now I’m very interested in it. I’ve been able to get back into reading more Shakespeare in recent years again. I feel like we had an old-school, classical education woven into a modern, progressive education. So it’s interesting to be able to pick up those threads from so long ago now. I still do a lot of things I loved when I was a child. I love going to museums. I love going to the theater all the time. I love looking around different cities, at the history. I think all that started at Spence.”
All of which leads her back to why she decided to include Spence in her will at such an early age. “I happen to think Spence has a really unique slot in girls’ education. Also, I’ve been re-energized by Bodie. I think that she brings such a fantastic energy to the School.” Then she returns to her senior year with a memory that has stayed with her ever since. “I have this vivid memory. The reason I started giving to Spence is Sandra Russell, a parent who was very active as a Board member when her daughter Donna was in my class. Ms. Russell met with the seniors in the Drawing Room in the spring a few weeks before graduation, and she gave us a little speech, saying ‘You are becoming alumnae, and we hope you’ll give to the School. Your participation really matters.’ I remember she said, ‘Even if you only give a quarter, just give.’ And I took that message to heart.”