Ben Coquillette '08

Ben near shore

Ben Coquillette '08

Major: English
Hometown: Cleveland Heights, Ohio

Why did you choose to come to Bowdoin?
Towards the end of my high school experience, I became really interested in the issue of urban education. Growing up in the shadow of the city of Cleveland, which has really struggled recently with the loss of manufacturing jobs, high rates of poverty, crime, and a low (27%) high school graduation rate, I wanted, as an 18-year old, to be able to do something about it. One of the major authors who has written extensively about how to educate poor teenagers in big cities is Geoff Canada who, coincidentally, graduated from Bowdoin himself back in the '70s. He, in his writing, was always really high on the college and what his four years at Bowdoin meant for his life. Given that account of what a Bowdoin education could do for him, I really wanted that experience for myself. Although I'll be the first to admit Brunswick, Maine, is one of the last places you would think about in terms of studying big cities, I have to say it's worked out pretty well for me.

Why did you choose your major?
As a freshman, I really wanted to be a sociology major (there is no urban studies department at Bowdoin, and sociology was the closest thing I could find), because of my interest in what was going on around home. I also took a number of classes in the education and psychology departments before I eventually settled on being an English major. I think one of the things I enjoy the most about a liberal arts institution such as Bowdoin is that there really isn't any pressure to find your way to a career path or a set of pre-professional courses while you are here. I chose to be an English major because I liked the course offerings, and wanted the opportunity to read things like Lolita or Uncle Tom's Cabin that, although works of fiction, have had a very real impact on society.

What has been a course you especially enjoyed at Bowdoin?
Although I didn't do particularly well in it, I have to say my favorite class I've taken at Bowdoin is probably Intro to Literary Theory with Prof. David Collings. It was essentially a crash course in the different ways that academic critics look at literature. So we would spend a week with someone like Karl Marx, and try to interpret the world around us purely through a Marxian lens; focusing on means of production. Then the next week it would be the same project with a structuralist author, or a feminist author, post-colonial theory, or something like that. While it all sounds unnecessarily academic and complicated, I have to say that it really changed the way I look at the world.

I think any class that challenges either the way you think about a specific issue, or the way you think in general, is really worthwhile. While Prof. Collings' class is probably the one that left my head spinning the most, I also really enjoyed Criminology and Criminal Justice with Prof. Janet Lohmann in the sociology department and The Arab-Israeli Conflict with Prof. Susan Tananbaum in the history department. Both of those had a lot to do with current political debates here in the United States, and I really liked how they made me think in new ways and see things from a perspective I hadn't really considered before.

What professor or professors have especially inspired you during your time at Bowdoin?
I've really enjoyed taking classes with professors that have a lot of personal and/or professional experience with the subject they teach. Prof. Barbara Held in the psychology department was really fun to listen to because of her extensive experience and body of written work about clinical psychology. I enjoyed taking a class in African history with Prof. David Gordon, because he has spent a lot of time on the continent and has personal stories that he can relate as part of the material. I also have a lot of respect for Prof. Craig McEwen in the sociology department because of his past experience in different forms of social research. It's always inspiring to me as a student to have professors who are really invested in the subject they teach.

Have you engaged in any independent research while at Bowdoin?
The last two semesters here I have spent working on various parts of a study of the Section 8 housing voucher program here in Brunswick. While it's not exactly an independent project for me personally (I've worked on it first as a part of a class, and then with three other students and Professor McEwen), it has still provided me with an opportunity to explore an issue with national significance right here in Brunswick. For those of you who aren't familiar with the bureaucracy of federal housing agencies, Section 8 is a national program designed to help low-income families find adequate, affordable housing in the communities in which they live and work. Our research project centered around interviewing families on the waiting list for these vouchers, and determining how well they managed to survive without the assistance. While I will spare you the details here, I would encourage everyone to check out our preliminary report which was presented to Maine's two U.S. Senators back in April. Either search for "Section 8" on the Bowdoin College Web site (it should be the first search result) or click here. Tell your congressman.

What extracurricular or work experiences have you had at Bowdoin?
I've spent four years here on the varsity Bowdoin sailing and track and field teams. I also ran track in high school, and it was really nice to have the opportunity to continue that at the Division III level. Sailing was something that I had done a bit before coming to Bowdoin, but I was able to pick up competitively when I got here. My other pursuits have involved spending four semesters with a radio show on WBOR, and being a two-time intramural hockey champion.

What have you done during your summers?
I've spent the last three years teaching sailing at a yacht club on the west side of Cleveland. It's been an opportunity to put my newfound college sailing experience to work, and it pays you to spend your days outside on a boat in the sun. I've also found time to intern at a money-management firm in downtown Cleveland and an injection-molding plastics factory in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

What is your best Bowdoin memory?
Like everybody says, it's hard to pick just one. Something that jumps out in my head as an example might be my freshman year, when I got to go to a sailing regatta in Larchmont, New York. College sailing is done almost entirely in small 14-foot dinghies, but in this particular case, members at the Larchmont Yacht Club had donated their big 40-something-foot ones for a weekend. It was a really long drive, but we got to sail in some great wind out on Long Island Sound, within pretty easy view of the New York City skyline, in a really expensive high-performance boat. It was pretty cool. There are at least a million other things I could have picked though.

What are your plans for after graduation?
My most immediate plan is returning to the CYC sailing program for one final summer as an assistant director. After that I don't have anything figured out. One of the advantages of a liberal arts education is you have a lot of opportunities, the problem is that eventually you do actually have to choose something.

What advice would you give to a prospective student or first-year about the Bowdoin experience?
I would really encourage anyone who doesn't already play a sport to pick up something like sailing, or rugby, or crew, something they don't normally offer as a high school program. Those teams tend to always be looking for people and it can be a lot of fun. Plus, the upperclassmen on any sports team are really an invaluable resource in terms of helping you balance academic, athletic, and social pressures.

You should also try playing intramural hockey at least once, even if you can't skate. In fact, I should say especially if you can't skate, because there will be plenty of other people who can't and it's a whole lot of fun.

What quirky or fun thing did you wish you knew before you came to Bowdoin?
I really wish I had some idea of what was awaiting me in Bowdoin track and field team meetings. Coach Slovenski is a great track coach, and I have to credit him for teaching me a lot of things, both athletically and personally, but what is singularly outstanding about him is the ridiculous stunts he comes up with to keep us entertained. From the "infractions" to inter-team water fights, jump rope contests, and Nerf wars, I don't think I'm ever going to have another experience exactly like that.

Story posted on May 15, 2008

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