First person: Student completes his B.A. — 48 years later

Stewart Palmer, a former Yale undergraduate who left the university 45 years ago, returned to finish his B.A., graduating with the Class of 2014. He talks about what it has been like to return to campus after an absence of 90 terms.
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(Photo by Michael Marsland)

Stewart Palmer ’ 14 entered Yale College straight out of high school in 1968 but left after his sophomore year, unsure whether to pursue his studies in history or his interest in computers. After a stint in the Navy, Palmer enjoyed a successful career at IBM for many decades. His desire to complete the work he had started at Yale brought Palmer back to campus two years ago as a Yale College student. He received his undergraduate degree this year, with a major in history. Here he talks about what it has been like to return to campus after an absence of 90 terms.

In the summer before my readmission I took a course on the history of the book that was taught in the Beinecke.1 The instructor illustrated the biological effect of the spread of literacy that flourished after the advent of movable type printing by having us read a study of video game players whose brains had been scanned by MRI. The study found that intense concentration on a video game resulted in physical changes in the brain in as little as two or three weeks. It seems reasonable to assume that the acquisition of literacy also results in physical changes to the brain.

My final two years at Yale have been a life-altering experience, which is what college is supposed to be. By allowing me to return at this time, Yale has given me a unique opportunity for personal growth and intellectual development. My brain has changed substantially. I can see it in the way that I write and think and read.  I approach intellectual tasks with a newfound sense of self confidence.

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The initial summer history course was part of that adventure. I hadn’t taken a history course in over 45 years. If pursuing a history major was going to be a bad idea I wanted to discover that in August, not November. The first paper I wrote for the course was both interesting and challenging. But I used the footnoting and bibliographic style that I had used for computer science papers, which left the history professor quite baffled. He was patient and understanding in telling me that while I would have to master the “Chicago Manual of Style” for my regular Yale courses, he was willing to work with whatever I was used to.

When I returned in the fall I was taking a full load of courses. I never dreamed how much work that would be. Clearly both Yale and I had changed. But it was fascinating and rewarding in so many ways. That first term my econ study-buddy was a 20-year-old from Virginia. She and I met in Bass Library every Friday morning to work on our problem sets together, followed by occasional emails over the weekend so that we could hand them in the following Tuesday.

My classmates have all been incredibly understanding, supportive, and good humored. In small seminars, it was the usual custom to have all of the students introduce themselves. In one of my history seminars, when I explained my background, one of my fellow students immediately came out with, “So how’s dorm life?”

My instructors have all been equally welcoming and supportive once they understood who I was and why I was there. In a small seminar I could introduce myself and explain my background in the initial meeting. In lecture courses this sometimes didn’t happen for a while. In the spring of 2013 I took David Blight’s Civil War course, which had a number of auditors of roughly my age. One day before lecture, as we were waiting for the previous class to leave the lecture hall, he and I started chatting. He must have assumed I was an auditor when he said, “Feel free to attend one of the discussion sections as well.” He seemed a little baffled when I replied, “As a junior history major taking this course for credit I am actually required to attend one of the discussion sections.” He asked me to come to his office and we subsequently had several interesting discussions. The exam at the end of the semester was to be my first history exam in decades. He was very helpful and supportive. I did very well on the exam and on the course. I have never feared a history exam since.

When I was looking at potential history courses in the fall of 2012 I saw that “American Economic History” (ECON 182 / HIST 135) would be offered in the following spring and that it had a prerequisite of “Introduction to Microeconomics” (ECON 115). So I took ECON 115 and found it fascinating. I also took MUSIC 110 (“Introduction to Elements of Music”), which required me to compose two original pieces of music and so intrigued me that I took up the piano.

I am astonished at the resources in the Yale libraries. I have made extensive use of the Bass, Beinecke, and Divinity School libraries; the Yale Medical Historical Library; and the Yale Center for British Art. Using those resources, as well as the extensive online databases available through the Yale library, I have written more papers than I can count. Although in the end I did do some counting. I gathered all of the written work I submitted to Yale over the past two years and printed it all. It consisted mostly of history and English papers, but included some problem sets from economics and astronomy. It came to just under a thousand pages.

Completing my degree has changed my life in ways I have yet to fully appreciate. In addition to whatever doors might be opened by finally having a Yale diploma, I have become a different person, a more thoughtful and analytical reader, and a better writer. I wouldn’t advise every sophomore to drop out for 45 years. But my decision to leave Yale 48 years was what made it possible to return when I finally did. It is rare to be able to have this experience at my age. Had I finished Yale with the rest of my original classmates, my career would undoubtedly have been different. But there is no way to know what it would have been like. I wound up in a job that normally required a master’s degree in computer science with a Ph.D. preferred.

I am very grateful that Yale has a policy of readmitting former students even though they have been absent for decades or, as in my case, a mere 90 terms. Mark Schenker, dean of academic affairs, told me when I first went to see him almost three years ago that he gets about a phone call a month from someone who has been out a long time and is considering returning. But that almost none of those people take the next step. I can only imagine that they are concentrating on the time and effort involved. If they could instead see it as a rich, intellectual adventure, they might instead do what I did. Move hesitantly forward one step at a time, finding surprising and daunting challenges along with immensely rich rewards.

One of our Class Day speakers said that you have “to keep telling your inner doubts to shut up.” I have had to do a lot of that over the past two years. Initially, the inner doubts seemed almost to be winning.  But lately they have become distinctly quieter.

1. “From Gutenberg to Google Books: The Cultural History of Publishing, 1450 to the Present” (HIST S213 01 (30056)/ENGL S226).

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