I believe there are a few people in all our lives who truly make a difference; who guide us through some critical passage. In my case, one of the most important was my Berkeley undergraduate advisor. I was recently put in contact with her after many years, and given the opportunity to write her a letter of thanks. I share it in honor of the caring mentors who make a difference in the lives of young people everywhere.
Dear Dr. Good:
You saved me.
I doubt you will believe that for a minute. You probably don’t even remember me. That was 1970 for Heaven’s sake! I was just one of hundreds, maybe thousands, of students in your long career who knew you as “The Good Doctor.” I don’t think you knew that, either.
You weren’t originally assigned to me, but you agreed to serve as my advisor when I came to you confused and distressed over my experience with another “advisor.” Careless and perfunctory advising were unfortunately pervasive. One of my friends had to complete 12 hours of PE in the last semester! But your skillful guidance through the byzantine maze of the Berkeley class catalog enabled me to complete my undergraduate degree in three years. You didn’t have to do that. But you did. You saved me.
I was also fortunate to be one of your students. In memory I see you standing by the lab bench in your bespattered white lab coat, ignoring the eye-rolls of the premeds, earnestly answering my questions as though hearing these remarkable insights for the very first time. I did not have the advantage of attending Berkeley High across the street. You knew that. You saved me.
Nowadays it’s not unusual to be a returning student, but in 1967, a twenty-seven year old woman entering Berkeley as a freshman could expect polite tolerance at best. I once overheard a student remark to her friend that I was taking up space that should be given to a younger student. A chemistry professor suggested I consider teaching chemistry in high school – “I suppose you could do scientific research,“ he told me dismissively “but it will always be harder for you than for the other students.” I remember tears welling up in my eyes as I slunk away, shamed for my outrageous grandiosity in taking his time.
And it was definitely not cool to be a Southern white woman at Berkeley during the time of Angela Davis and Malcolm X. Somehow, in that bastion of freedom and justice, derision of a southern drawl did not qualify as prejudice. But my ancestry did not matter to you. You saved me.
These were years of intense social upheaval and it was not unusual for lectures to drift from the course material to the professor’s passionate if sometimes eccentric, political views. One professor cautioned us to avoid air conditioning because we were being irradiated through the air vents by the local power company. But you never discussed politics. You discussed science. That’s what I came for. You saved me.
There is so much for which to thank you, so many conversations and hours of tutoring, and of course, your skillful advising. But your most important gift to me was your simple acceptance of me as nothing more nor less than another of your students. You never singled me out. Your regard for me was no different than for the Korean student struggling with English or the Phi Beta Kappa student on the fast track to Harvard.
You will say you did nothing, that I did all the work. While it’s true, I provided the thread and did the stitching, you provided the fabric; the respect and validation I so desperately needed in order to move forward. And that saved me.
So thanks, Dr. Good. Thanks for just being “The Good Doctor.”