In 1957 Joan Colwell graduated from Lake Erie College with majors in language and literature, and for the next half a century she went on to have a lucrative career in education and special education, as well as a life full of joy and surprises. One thing that was missing, however, was the connection to LEC.
After graduation Joan did not have any communication with the campus until a chance visit in May 2012. On her way to visit Cleveland with an old friend, Joan asked him if they could stop in Painesville so she could see her alma mater. "Lake Erie had no clue where I was or how to reach me, and I sadly did not reach out to Lake Erie College,” Joan said. But all that was about to change.
When she walked through the doors of College Hall on May 15th of this year, 55 years after she had left as a graduate, Joan did not know what to expect. The College had changed so much since she had last been there—no longer a female seminary, Lake Erie had grown significantly in student body as well as campus size. Yet, even decades ago, Joan had seen the seeds of the liberal, forward-thinking institution Lake Erie College is today.
"In the 1950s women could be nurses, teachers or secretaries—only until they married,” Joan said. In 1951, however, with a new president from a progressive school in California, this was about to change. "[Paul Weaver] believed that women should be educated in a way that would prepare them for the multiple roles they would face as adults,” Joan explained. "In fact, during freshman year, all students were required to take an orientation seminar to better understand these multiple roles.”
For a high school student from Springfield, Mass., with a mother who had been the first one to go to college and a father who was an immigrant from Spain, coming to the small town of Painesville, Ohio was a huge change. It was a home visit from Jane White, a dean at LEC at the time, that convinced Joan’s parents that the Lake Erie was a good, safe place—small classes, all women, great learning opportunities. "I think Lake Erie College chose me,” Joan says. The College also offered her "grant-in-aid” financial aid which helped pay for room, board and tuition, altogether costing $1,250 for the year in 1953.
While at Lake Erie, Joan got involved in many of the opportunities that were offered here —she was the goalie on the lacrosse team, rode horses and participated in equine shows, sang in the LEC choir, and did children’s theater. "I remember being the witch in ‘Hansel and Gretel,’” she said, "with Annie Weiss as Gretel and Pegsie Wheeler as Hansel.” As she was going into her junior year, another opportunity, which would in many ways change her life, presented itself. In 1954 President Weaver had instituted the winter term abroad program, later to be known as "passport to the future”—a unique and groundbreaking for the time travel-abroad program. The Class of 1957 was only the second class to have this experience, and Joan took full advantage of it. In December 1955, together with her entire class and chaperoned by Dr. Weaver and his wife, she boarded a ship from New York, and after a week of transatlantic travel, arrived in Paris for three days. From there the students broke up in groups to travel to a few different countries where they would spend the semester studying in various European institutions.
Joan was off to Madrid, and she studied at the University of Madrid while living at the pension with the other Spanish students. But for her it was not only a learning trip—going to Spain also meant being able to meet the long-lost family of her father, still living in the small pueblo (village) of Priarantha de la Valdierna. Dressed in her "Sunday best, stockings, heels, a proper skirt and [her] winter coat with a fur collar,” and driven by her immense excitement to meet her family, Joan took off on a ten-hour train trip plus a bus ride, away from the familiarity of the big city.
The trip was difficult, but with the help of some welcoming locals she finally made it. Her wild adventure paid off completely—her family, and the entire pueblo, embraced the "prodigal daughter.” She met her grandmother, her aunt, Juanna, for whom she was named, and many cousins and their children, and participated in numerous celebrations and a "fiesta day” in her honor. Her grandmother, scandalized by the fact that Joan was 21 and not yet married, even tried to make a match. She invited all the young "mozos” in the pueblo, the eligible bachelors, to meet Joan one by one, as the girl was sitting on a stool at her grandmother’s feet, dressed in traditional attire. After she made it clear to the family that she did not plan on being married any time soon, Joan was told she had to wear a while scarf over her head, to signify that she is unmarried but not eligible.
Too soon, however, the trip to the pueblo had to end, and for Joan it was back to Madrid to finish her studies, and then back to Ohio and Lake Erie College. Adventures were far from over, however. Upon returning to LEC for her senior year, Joan became witness to one of the most tragic events in LEC’s history—the fire that destroyed Memorial Hall, which was where Joan lived at the time. She remembers her roommate, Kathy Kane, letting down the iron fire escape, and leading the girls down step by step on sheer ice, as they evacuated the building. Nobody was hurt in the fire; however, the College lost Memorial Hall. If you ask her what her favorite memory of her time at LEC is, though, she will tell you it is "sitting in the living room of Dr. Hickerson’s home having [her] oral exams senior year, as Mrs. Hickerson served [her] tea.”
Joan took many of the lessons she learned at LEC with her after she graduated. Her first job after college was answering readers’ mail at "Mademoiselle Magazine” in New York City, but after two years she decided to go back to school at Columbia University, where she graduated with her master’s in education of the deaf. Soon after that she got her second graduate degree from Boston College in curriculum design and rehabilitation services. "Lake Erie College prepared me for multiple careers, not only in the world of journalism, but [also] in special education,” she said. During her trip to Spain Joan had met an uncle who was a deaf mute, and this began her career-long interest in special education and her work as a special education administrator in public schools.
Joan retired in 2000, but only three years before that, in 1997, she had begun working on a project that keeps her busy even today—through a grant funded by the Rhode Island State Department for programs for children with autism spectrum disorders, Joan started the Autism Project of Rhode Island. The other major opportunity that presented itself and brought her out of retirement, was opening Mount Pleasant Academy, a school for young children with severe psychiatric disorders, run by Family Services of Rhode Island. "An educator’s dream,” Joan said.Returning to campus after so many years, Joan found her alma mater had changed a lot, yet in many ways it had stayed the same and always true to its mission—to educate young leaders, who, like her, would go into the world and change it for the better. Her message for the future alumni of Lake Erie College—take advantage of all opportunities Lake Erie has to offer. "At the time of ‘chance meetings and experiences,’ one never knows, until often years later, how those experiences and opportunities are linked together. The dots can always get connected upon reflection, and we can recognize the ‘red thread of destiny.’”