After an undergraduate career highlighted by international adventure, imaginative research and many close friendships and mentorships, Judith Stapleton ’12 had one final box to tick on her “to-do” list before graduating from Franklin & Marshall on May 12: venture to the top of Old Main and ring the bell of the historic building at the southern end of campus.
A few days before the College’s 225th Commencement on May 12, Stapleton made it happen with a few close friends.
“I’ve always wanted to ring the bell in Old Main,” Stapleton said. “In our first year at F&M, I remember seeing an email asking for a student volunteer to ring the bell each morning at 8:30, but nobody wanted to get up each day and do it. It was amazing. I love heights.”
Stapleton reached lofty heights of her own when the F&M faculty voted her the 2012 winner of the Williamson Medal, the most prestigious academic award the College bestows on a graduating senior. It was the culmination of a remarkable journey for Stapleton, a native of the United Kingdom who moved with her family to the United States when she was 8.
“[The Williamson Medal] means a lot to me, mostly because I never expected to receive it,” said Stapleton, who graduated summa cum laude with a major in art and a minor in Italian. “It’s a nice top-off to a hard, exciting and rewarding time here. I’m still hugely emotional about it.”
Stapleton had an opportunity after accepting the Williamson Medal at Commencement to share the story of her path to Franklin & Marshall. She recounted how she enrolled at F&M in January 2009 as part of the College’s Spring Option program, which offers a way for students to take a short break between high school and college. She had been invited to join the incoming class the previous fall but instead opted to trek to Europe, visiting 11 countries in three weeks. She then found a job as a waitress in Glasgow, Scotland, where her sister was attending school.
“When I heard that F&M had a Spring Option, I thought it was an opportunity for adventure, to test myself and push boundaries. I became much more assertive during my time in Glasgow, battling landlords over heat,” she said with a laugh.
Stapleton had a difficult time adjusting to F&M after her adventure, she said. She even wondered if she selected the right college. Then she landed a job as a tutor at F&M’s Writing Center—a place that would eventually become akin to her second home.
“Joining this community as a tutor was really important in keeping me at F&M,” Stapleton said in a quiet F&M Writing Center a few days after Commencement. “When I became a veteran, it was great to help tutors develop and help form a community.”
Stapleton quickly emerged as a leader in the Writing Center, serving as head tutor in 2011-12. Professor Dan Frick, director of the Writing Center, said Stapleton “led by example, never asking anything from the staff that she wasn’t already doing herself. Such an attitude inspired a deep loyalty from the other tutors.”
In the classroom, Stapleton excelled as a student of art history. She earned departmental honors for her independent project titled “Four Walls and a Frame: Defying Conventions of Art and Life in Charleston House.” The work resulted from her fascination with the Bloomsbury Set, a group of early-20th century English writers, intellectuals and artists. She studied the group during a summer 2010 trip to England through a Marshall Scholarship, an award given to students at F&M who have demonstrated unusual motivation, spirit of achievement and independence of thought.
“Judith is an exceptional intellect,” said Associate Professor of Art History Amelia Rauser, Stapleton’s independent project adviser. “A less ambitious student might have chosen an element of the house or the output of an artist to pursue, but Judith has been interested in the big picture from the beginning—how the aesthetic theories of Roger Fry and Clive Bell and the modernist feminist literature of Virginia Woolf integrate with the seemingly spontaneous decoration of the house and the unconventional lives of the artists who lived there.”
Away from her studies, Stapleton was particularly excited about working with local refugee women living in Lancaster through her participation in Atma: The Refugee Artisan Initative. Stapleton and classmates May Aung ’12 and Rukhshana Tuli ’12 founded Atma to help refugee women gain a measure of financial independence through the production and sale of artisan crafts. “I love working with [the refugee women] one-on-one. They come from such an interesting culture,” Stapleton said.
The Atma project earned first place in F&M’s annual Franklin Innovation Challenge, a contest organized by the College’s Entrepreneurship Club to foster innovation among students.
Stapleton counts her work with Aung and Tuli among her proudest moments at F&M. She also found deep meaning in the relationships she developed with professors, including Frick, Rauser, Associate Professor of Art History Linda Aleci, Professor of Art History Rick Kent and Assistant Professor of Art History Kostis Kourelis. Stapleton also maintains a close connection with Professor Kabi Hartman, her Spring Option adviser, and Professor Joel Eigen, don of Ware College House.
Stapleton does not need to say goodbye to her favorite professors just yet; she will remain at F&M as secretary of the Writing Center next year before pursuing a Ph.D. in art history.
“I’d like to be a professor of art history,” she said. “I’d love to have the kind of impact on others that my professors had on me. My backup plan would be to work in admissions.”