Purchase Then and Now

s the final trees of Purchase College’s old plaza came down last week, the chainsaws almost seemed to sound a dirge for the old campus, with its leafy canopy and strong trunks holding up hammocks for a quick break. One page ended of Purchase’s history, and a blank page, erasing all evidence of the trees but in memories, started. But while the college changes physically, another question remains. Does the Purchase student change too? Is the student now completely different from the ones who took those first classes, 40 years ago in 1971, coming out of the haze of the 60s?

“Things have remained remarkably consistent,” says Lee Schlesinger, a literature professor who started at Purchase in 1975. “Everyone here seems slightly sociopathic and weird.” He laughs, adding. “Purchase students are still pretty weird.”

Robert Stein, another literature professor started the same year, when Purchase’s first freshman students were graduating seniors. The classes were smaller, more intimate, according to Stein. Rooms in the Humanities building are a vestige of the changing time; where there used to be two classrooms, the walls were knocked down to make one. The ledges in the classroom are the remainders of the original dividing walls.

“It started as an experimental school and became ever more conventional,” Stein says. He and Schlesinger taught in the legendary days of no grades, when students instead received long evaluations indicating pass, fail, or honors. The freedom was exhilarating for most students, Stein said.

“Some students became human beings under our eyes,” said Stein.

But there weren’t only academic changes. My mother, Marie Fiore, went to Purchase in the mid-1980s, after grades were instituted, and often tells me stories of the glory days, when there was a pub at Campus Center South. Bands would play at the pub, which only served beer.

“There’s a long history at Purchase of just about every policy being flexible,” says Schlesinger. In the early years, the senior graduation had an open bar, which Schlesinger tended. 

John Gibson, Purchase alumni of 1987, said attending Purchase was an eye-opening experience that took him out of his provincial small-town upbringing in Yonkers. He remembered playing guitar at the pub and at April Showers, a predecessor to Culture Shock, where bands played on the plaza.

“Students always change over time,” says Schlesinger. “It’s a different world.” Schlesinger taught at Yale for two years before Purchase and preferred here over the Yale students who were set in their ways. “Purchase students will take a risk. Purchase students have always been educable.”

He recalled having to teach a class, ‘US Literature through History’, last year. It was a big class with 70 students and he predicted it would be like a lecture. “I couldn’t get them to shut up!” Schlesinger said.

Maria Rojas, a printmaking major, described it best, saying, “The typical Purchase student wants to take as much as they can.” Rojas was attracted to Purchase because she felt people at the school were genuine, and acted like who they really were. She added that students here are eager, enthusiastic, and curious. Sam Eaves, a junior history major, added unique, laidback, and fun to the makeup of the Purchase student psyche. 

Eaves said, “Everyone’s really, really nice,” a sentiment shared by Schlesinger.

“By and large, Purchase students treat each other well, despite the high stakes creative competition,” he said. “It’s not a bad ethos.”

Stein remembers being invited to have dinner at students’ apartments, emphasizing that there was more intimacy being the teachers and students. But even today, those mentoring relationships can be found here, though reversed. Kathy McCormick holds her Personal Essay class in her own on-campus apartment, and the students sit on her couch and chairs.

John Bastone, who has been selling records and CDs on campus every week for 19 years, said Purchase has “forever been an eclectic crowd.” He used to go to other colleges to sell, but Purchase is now his only school.

Students devour his selection of records. Next to him, another vendor totes vintage clothes and bohemian jewelry; the essentials of the Purchase mismatch uniform. While they browse, two boys hand out free copies of their music album in white envelopes, eager to find new fans.

“Purchase pushed my curiosity in places it had never been before.” my mother said, who came from a conservative background with her middle-class Italian family. “It was good preparation for life. It definitely had a permanent, good influence. It soaks in.”

On a nice day, Purchase’s personality comes out to play. Girls with neon hair strut around in fashions that landed them on the front page of the New York Time’s style section recently. Frisbees are tossed in the quad, over the heads of bare-chested boys languidly playing guitar.

“Purchase students are some of the most interesting 18 to 21-year-olds,” says Stein. “You guys are wonderful.”