SLC History Professor Priscilla Murolo looks back on long relationship with the college

Murolo with Emma McCumber ('11) at Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan during the 2011 Occupy Wall Street Protests. Photo by Benjamin Chitty, Murolo's husband

Murolo with Emma McCumber ('11) at Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan during the 2011 Occupy Wall Street Protests. Photo by Benjamin Chitty, Murolo's husband

Sarah Lawrence College owes Professor Priscilla Murolo exactly four hubcaps. “I wouldn’t park my car on the campus,” Murolo recalled about being a student here in the 1970s. “I parked on the street, and then I found out I could park on campus. The first day I parked on campus my hubcaps were stolen. Here I lived in the Bronx at the time, and it was the SLC parking lot where they were stolen.”

Murolo was 30 years-old when she earned her BA in history from SLC.  After graduating high school in Connecticut, Murolo attended Barnard College, where she was more invested in campus politics than academics, for a year before dropping out. In the ten years before attending SLC to obtain her degree, she lived in the West Bronx, working a series of jobs and engaging in activism. This experience gave her a different sort of education which informed her later academia.

“There are many, many other people from whom I learned during my nine years in the West Bronx:  tenant activists, members of the Unemployed Workers Organizing Committee, my co-workers at a series of clerical jobs in Manhattan, people on strike at the phone company, the post office's bulk mail facility near Jersey City, the Harper and Row publishing company, various hospitals, and a host of factories (I visited lots of picket lines),”  said Murolo. “I also learned from neighborhood women who inducted me into networks where everyone looked out for each others' kids, lent each other money, and cleaned your apartment if you were sick or you had a baby or someone in your family died.  Along the way, I became a mother and a wife – that involved a lot of learning too.”.

When Murolo decided to return to college in 1977, there were a lot fewer paths for adult education than there are now. “I wanted to go to a good school,” said Murolo, “I didn’t want to go to just any school.” When Murolo inquired if she could return to Barnard, she was told there would be a gym requirement. At the time, Murolo had two small children – ages 1 and 3, and ran 40 miles a week regularly – but Barnard wouldn’t budge.

“I remembered SLC at that point. I lived in the Bronx, and I lived three or four miles away. I thought it was 50 miles upstate, so I telephoned and asked if they had a program for adult students. They were really the first in the country—typical of SLC—to have a whole Center for Continuing Education. It had originated to bring back SLC students who had left before finishing their degrees, often to become wives and mothers. I was very, very fortunate to find SLC for a number of reasons. It was welcoming to women returning to school,” Muralo said.

Murolo worked extremely hard to earn her degree at SLC. “I did my homework between loads of laundry, trips to the Pathmark, efforts to keep the apartment at least somewhat clean and do some special things with my sons,” Murolo recalled. “One year into this process, my marriage fell apart, and without my husband's income there seemed no possible way that I could stay in school, not at SLC anyway. But Barbara Kaplan, who was then Dean of Studies, came up with a plan. I'd work full time at the student services office, the college would let me take one course for free each term, and I'd pay for the rest with loans and state and federal grants. That's how I spent my last two years as an undergraduate here.”

Murolo worked as the Coordinator of Student Employment and as the Coordinator of College Events. They were both part-time positions at the time and together they gave Murolo full-time hours. The accommodations SLC made for Murolo helped her graduate on schedule, which made it possible for her to win the Danforth Scholarship the last year it was offered. The scholarship provided the means for her to attend Yale for graduate school.

After getting her doctorate in labor history, Murolo briefly taught at the State University of New York, but found it difficult to adapt to a more traditional academic system. When a position at SLC opened that was in her field, Murolo applied and taught as a guest professor for a few years before becoming a part of its regular faculty.

“My whole relationship with SLC is important,” Murolo explained. “My sons went to school here. I’ve been a parent, an alum, an administrator, a professor, I’ve given to the annual fund – I have a lot of different relationships with the college, so I feel affection for it.”

Murolo has taught for 26 years at SLC and is currently the head of the Women’s History program. She has been able to see the college grow, change, and stay the same. The biggest college changes, she says, have been a more diverse faculty and different buildings. The student body has also slowly come to be more diverse and the course offerings have expanded.

“The downside of growth,” said Murolo, “is that we’re so large now that we have many different communities on the campus. People don’t know each other as well as they did when it was 700 or 800 students. We’ve reached the critical mass where we have the filmmaking community, the dance community, the science community, and the students who gravitate to history or literature courses and so on. The different groups ran into each other more often when the place was smaller.”

Murolo is quick to point out that SLC is in many ways still a very strong community. “Years after you graduate, you will meet students and the first question they will ask is ‘who was your don?’” Through the many years Murolo has been with SLC in many different capacities, SLC’s unique system and the opportunities it makes have remained very much the same.

“Something that students often don’t understand,” explained Murolo, “is that the faculty members are generous people, but it is the educational structure of SLC which makes us teach generously. The things that go on in conference and how we know students – this is not because we’re extraordinary individuals. This is an extraordinary school that gives us room to do that. Whatever your desires are, no matter how generous you are, if you have gigantic classes and a few office hours a week, you just don’t develop the same relationships with students. People looking from the outside at the faculty may think we’re the kinds of individuals who would do this anywhere, but it’s the structure and the culture of the institution that make it possible.”

by Sarah McEachern '17
Print Editor