HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Nikki” is a pseudonym specifically chosen by the author.
I wanted to close my story by explaining how the PHC administration shuts out alumni, many of whom feel that they share a community with current students and would love to help them.
Remember, there is a division between many current students and the so-called “bitter alumni,” the PHC-coined term for any alumnus who voices criticism of the school. This division is actively encouraged by the administration. Student Life (through the RAs) tells students that alumni criticisms are baseless because they only come from “angry, bitter” people who are seeking to “destroy” the school. Since current students know few alumni and certainly have no idea what kind of people they are (or what alumni faced at PHC, since stories about things like the Schism are also rewritten by the administration when they are passed on to current students, if they are passed on at all), current students have in large part adopted this narrative that was actively spread to them.
The best example of this phenomenon happened last fall, when alumni voiced opposition to Stephen Baskerville’s Faith and Reason lecture, a mandatory, campus-wide lecture that condemned protective orders and domestic violence laws. Over 100 alumni (out of PHC’s roughly 600 total alumni) signed a statement asserting that the lecture “displayed an unacceptable lack of academic rigor” and unacceptably “encourage[d] students to doubt victims of rape, domestic violence, sexual harassment, and abuse when those individuals come forward with their stories.”
Many current students became extremely hostile to alumni for voicing these criticisms (and began actively defending Baskerville’s lecture), a reaction caused in large part by the message Student Life was disseminating, i.e., that only “bad” alumni had anything negative to say about Baskerville’s lecture.
Alumni who want to invest in the student body thus face an uphill battle.
They must either be the “perfect” alumni who say the right Christianese, smile when they’re supposed to, and wholeheartedly support the administration in public (and thereby become one of the handful of alumni who get invited back by the administration for certain events) or they have to fight through the alumni-bashing and hopefully form connections with students who are willing to question the administration’s approved narrative. I call the first category the “holies.” And please know—some of the holies are fake, saying and doing what they need to publicly and keeping their opinions to themselves, whether out of a fear of social reprisal or because they believe they can do more good that way. But either way, the PHC administration has created an actively anti-alumni atmosphere, and I believe it has done so because it is easier to control the student body when the students do not have the support of and connections with the wider alumni community.
After all, it would be much easier for 19-year-old students to stand up to the administration if they knew there was a strong contingent of alumni also willing to go to bat for them. And it is also easier for the administration to control the narrative provided to students when their memory of the school, collectively, can’t go back further than 4 years.
Despite the administration’s dislike for alumni, we have a lot to offer current students. Therefore, almost three years after I graduated from PHC, I and several other PHC grads tried to start an alumnae organization. Our hope was to provide mentoring to current female students interested in a career. Many of the alumnae who joined the organization did so precisely because they had few female mentors during their time as a student (PHC does not have many female professors). PHC also has few career counseling services, and the alumnae organization was meant to provide needed support to current female students who would like to learn tips on how to write a resume, prepare a cover letter, or find an internship in their field. Additionally, many alumnae had struggled with the PHC-approved narrative that women were to be wives and mothers first, with career a distant and somewhat-frowned-upon second.
Many, many PHC alumnae expressed to me their desire to share with current female students how the limiting rhetoric at PHC does not reflect reality.
There is value and happiness in pursuing one’s career goals, whether as a mother or non-mother, something few PHC women get told while they are students. And finally, some alumnae also wanted to encourage current female students to keep pursuing their ambitions, even when it sometimes feels discouraging at PHC. In the so-called “real world” women are valued for their work and minds much more than inside PHC’s confines—a statement that I expect will shock most of PHC’s current students. Remember, it is a question of degree, as mainstream American society still displays sexist traits as well. But at PHC, you are never allowed to forget your gender. It is constantly brought up in jokes and banter and general commentary, whether inside or outside the classroom. As a woman, you are always different, by which I mean, you are deemed more emotional, motherly, romantic, lady-like, and fragile than the “manly men” of PHC. Traditional femininity isn’t something women get to choose for the fun of it or because it expresses their desires for how they look. It’s both presumed and required. And smart women who don’t fit the mold (in other words, who seek leadership and display traditionally “masculine” qualities) are bad.
That’s why it’s taken 14 years for PHC to even get a female student body president.
I remember one recent grad, who is now at a prestigious grad school, telling me that she loves grad school in part because she never feels that she needs to dumb herself down to be accepted by her male peers, something she had felt the need to do at PHC. I think that statement captures my grad school and general work experience, post-PHC, as well. It’s wonderful to be in an environment where you are not pre-assigned characteristics based on what’s between your legs. Whether they consciously articulate this sentiment or not, many alumni, I think, want to encourage PHC students that there is so much out there for them, if their PHC years are not going as planned or it has not been easy, it’s ok. It really is.
I systematically reached out to dozens of former PHC women to see if they would be interested in this organization, and their reaction was almost universally positive—but note, the positive reaction was nearly universal because the organization was about helping current students. I think it is telling that many alumni had no desire whatsoever to support the administration or even step foot on campus again—there were too many painful memories associated with the school. This is a distinction that I think current students fail to grasp. For many alumni, there is a world of difference between current students needing help getting an internship and the administration that has systematically bullied those students (and alumni) who did not fit its narrowly conceived notion of “a proper Christian.” I expect that there are dozens and dozens of alumni who would not lend a helping hand to the administration but who would pull strings and make phone calls on behalf of a job-seeking student in a heartbeat.
Sadly, the alumnae organization was stonewalled from the beginning.
Dean Corbitt expressed privately to others that she did not think I was fit to lead the organization (information quickly shared with me due to the ever-present PHC grapevine). She threatened to “pull the plug” on our first event, a meet-and-greet between current female students and alumnae, because I had invited too many (and yes, this is her word) “fringers.” I’m not sure what a “fringer” is. I do know that I had invited dozens of women from many different PHC graduation years and cliques, many of whom were former RAs and none of whom had reputations for disciplinary problems during their time at PHC. They were also extremely talented women who had achieved career success in many different areas and would be an asset to students interested in employment in those areas.
But it would seem that it does not take much to become a “fringer” in Dean Corbitt’s book.
Her need to control was also excessive. She was “offended” when I did not send her a Facebook invite to the event—because I assumed a college administrator had no need to oversee the Facebook postings of an alumni-sponsored event—and she personally contacted several of her favorite alumnae to make sure they would come. Apparently, my assurances that these individuals had already RSVPed yes to my invitation was insufficient. During the event, she played favorites excessively, turning her back on well-respected alumnae (who I assume she deemed “fringers”) and engaging in conversation only with those she approved.
Although I was hosting the event and was there for several hours, I did not get as much as a hello from her.
A few months later, she had all of the alumnae organization’s events indefinitely postponed, and I was told I should only speak with current students if I received explicit permission—anything else would be deemed a “refusal to cooperate,” something that seemed to have vaguely ominous repercussions attached to it.
Anytime I offered to provide an event to fit a specific need (resume writing, major-specific counseling, tea time with ladies who have attended graduate school, etc.), Dean Corbitt told me that the school was doing quite well, on its own, providing career counseling services. Later, I would learn that Corbitt was especially angry that I had “allowed” an anonymous contributor to QueerPHC (a blog describing the experiences of queer students at PHC) to attend our events. Obviously, no discussion of the blog’s content had ever occurred during our events. In fact, the blog was barely known at the time. Farris would not threaten to sue it for a few more months yet. It would seem that, were Corbitt to get her way about an alumnae organization at PHC, every attendee must be vetted according to Corbitt’s standards. Of course, that means that any leader of the alumnae organization must know all the gossip Corbitt has accumulated about various alumnae to even be able to apply those standards.
I was stonewalled for so long, I finally decided to confront Corbitt in person and ask her exactly why she disliked me so much, since I had never even spoken with her during my time as a student. I am sharing her response because I think it indicates how little it takes to be marked as a “black sheep” at PHC and how Corbitt uses her personal opinion about you to limit your ability to be involved as an alumnus—even when she cannot point to a single instance of wrongdoing on your part.
In response to my questions, she said I seemed “unhappy” during my time at PHC and that my senior testimony was concerning. Before the conversation was over, she also criticized the fact that I was pro-gay-rights and told me that it was not safe to let me speak to freshmen, who the administration has a duty to protect from dangerous and damaging information that they are not yet ready to handle. Strange—one would think that after being homeschooled, a form of education that is supposed to be vastly superior, PHC freshmen would be prepared to speak to a liberal alumna of their school. I wonder if PHC freshmen appreciate the fact that Corbitt doesn’t think they are capable of maturely wrestling with any information I might provide them that is contrary to the beliefs they currently hold. Is this really a rigorous liberal arts education at its finest?
In any event, I had expected her to deny, deny, deny. I confess, her matter-of-fact response startled me.
My time at PHC was marked by dramatic upheaval in my family, months of military-caused separation from my boyfriend (now husband), and long work days due to the part-time job that ate up my every weekend. Was I happy? Certainly not in the always-smiling image of bubbling Christian joy that I suspect she would have preferred. But I was hard-working, caused no problems, and was extremely competent. I graduated summa cum laude, landed the job that paved the way for entrance to a prestigious grad school a few years later, and became financially independent of my parents during an economic downtown. Despite all that, this woman, who never so much as greeted me in the hallways during my entire time at PHC, thought she knew I was unfit to lead an alumnae organization whose sole goal was to link alumnae with current students because I seemed “unhappy” to her three or more years ago.
And then there is my senior testimony. For those who do not know, seniors have the opportunity to give a 10-minute testimony to the student body during chapel, provided you give an outline of your speech to the administration beforehand. Some are quite well done, some are atrociously boring, but there are a few consistent themes, year after year. The most prominent theme is a call for the student body to be less judgmental. The speakers will either talk about being victims of judgmental students or about learning to become more emphatic themselves. It’s interesting how, no matter how many times students are told to be less judgmental, year after year, without fail, a good number of senior testimonies will still focus on exhorting the student body to stop being so judgmental. It’s also common for one or two students to transfer out each year, usually after freshman year, citing the school’s judgmental attitude as their reason. In any event, although I certainly agreed at the time that judgmental attitudes were prevalent, I decided to take my senior testimony in another, more unique direction. I’ll link to the audio here and let you decide how dangerous it made me. (You can also read the transcript here.)
When I was starting up the alumnae organization, I was told, multiple times by many well-meaning people, that the administration would kill it. I kept hoping that something would change, that this would be the time that someone who wasn’t one of Corbitt’s darlings could actually do something good for the students. So many PHC women were interested in helping out, the organization had a lot of potential. When it became clear that Corbitt would never allow me or an organization I was part of near the students, I stepped down from my post, put the reins of the organization in other hands, and sat back and waited for months and months. Maybe something will happen now. It looks like it might, and I hope it does. I would rather some organization exist to help current students, without my involvement in it, than no organization at all.
But whether the alumnae organization gets off the ground or not, the reality is that PHC’s administration cares more about controlling the information students receive than about letting students form relationships with alumni who might be “bitter,” might no longer adhere to the restrictive statement of faith, and might no longer share the school’s right-wing ideology.
If the only way you can remain on their “good” list is by believing the same things you did when you were 18 and showed up on campus (or at least by never publicly changing your mind on anything), PHC has snubbed its nose at a huge number of its alumni, including many of the former golden children who were the RAs and RDs the administration counted on.
So this is why I’m one of the “bitter alumni.”
I don’t stick to the approved narrative that PHC is a wonderful school full of wonderful people. I’m not going to sing the praises of a school that does not deserve them. I’m not going to pretend that PHC is some kind of citadel of Christian learning, that it respects its students, or that it accepts those alumni who have varied beliefs and experiences.
After being part of the PHC community for 8 years, I know better than that.
I also know better than to expect many current students to understand. It took me years to accumulate the knowledge I now have, let alone to realize that Christian leaders at institutions I was told to respect are often just as fallen, misguided, and dangerous as the “atheists and sinners” I had been warned about all my life. So if you are a current student at PHC, please know that those of us in the “bitter alumni” camp don’t hate you. We actually care very much about you. We criticize the school and its behavior because we see it hurting you, in ways you might not even recognize for years, just as we often did not recognize the school’s behavior as harmful during our time as students.
The day we fall silent is the day we don’t care anymore.
One of the most common themes in the stories PHC students and alumni submitted to HA over the last several weeks is loneliness. If you are a current student and you feel that way, if you want to talk with one of the “bitter alumni” about those gut feelings you have and the doubts you are shoving to the back of your mind, feel free to reach out to me by messaging HA. They know how to get hold of me.
End of series.