Three generations of keeping Pfeiffer in the family

Published 3:48 pm Thursday, October 12, 2023

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By Ken Keuffel, for Pfeiffer University

Patricia “Patty” Clarke Erickson (Class of 1971) says that when her daughter, Sarah Erickson (Class of 2003), was 4, she boldly proclaimed her intention to attend Pfeiffer and then never wavered in her wish to follow in her mother’s footsteps — and those of Patty’s mother, Carol Whittaker Clarke-Avrick (Class of 1945).

Carol attended Pfeiffer when it was a junior college, at the height of World War II. After that, she graduated from Greensboro College, but when she tells stories about her “college days” — and there are many, often colorful ones — they’re always about Pfeiffer.

Pfeiffer’s close-knit community is often referred to as the “Pfeiffer Pfamily.” Although Sarah, Patty and Carol reinforce this image in an unusually multi-generational way, their experiences on the university’s Misenheimer campus differed markedly, as did the benefits they derived from them.

Carol, who originally hails from Connecticut, chose to attend Pfeiffer because it was considerably less expensive than comparable colleges in New England. Not surprisingly, she contended with a bit of culture shock while adjusting to Misenheimer. For example, she recalls well that, no matter how hot and humid the weather got, she wasn’t permitted to wear shorts on campus.

In the 1940s, when Carol attended Pfeiffer, the women so outnumbered the men that she recalls any meaningful socializing with the opposite sex came courtesy of soldiers bussed in from Fort Bragg (now Fort Liberty) for the occasional dance.

To hear her tell it, the most daring thing she and her fellow classmates did, all dressed neatly in skirts and sweaters, was buy a pack of cigarettes at a nearby general store, and then, after surreptitiously walking down a country road, puff on them as they sat on a bridge.

Carol’s daughter, Patty, says she felt the pull of Pfeiffer when, as a high school student, she accompanied her mother to a reunion gathering and was really taken with the atmosphere, which was marked by everyone “having such a good time.” When Patty became a Pfeiffer student, though, she needed time to adjust to an environment that “was very different from any place I had ever been to or seen in my entire life.” The graduates of her high school, in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., outnumbered Pfeiffer’s entire student body, for example, and her high school’s buildings outnumbered those on Pfeiffer’s campus.

Patty would major in Christian education and later work in Christian education ministries for the United Methodist Church. She says she still occasionally checks in with Falcons whom she befriended during her student days.

“I thoroughly enjoyed my time there,” she said.

The third generation of her family to attend Pfeiffer, Sarah experienced a different campus atmosphere than her mother and grandmother: the strict dress codes her grandmother remembers were a thing of the past, dorm mothers no longer managed residence halls and technology created an entirely new classroom standard.

The daughter of a United Methodist minister who grew up in Virginia, Sarah said she can’t really explain why she remained fixated on attending Pfeiffer in her youth, or why trips with her mother to see other colleges never came close to changing her mind.

“Pfeiffer just really seemed like the school for me,” she said from her home in Columbus, Ohio. “No one from my high school was going there. I liked that it was small enough that you didn’t feel lost. You felt like you were really a part of Pfeiffer and all that made it feel really comfortable for me.”

Sarah praised Pfeiffer for giving her the space to find her true calling. In time, she replaced her initial major, music, with something radically different: environmental science, now called environment and sustainability studies.

“I liked being outside,” Sarah said. “I liked the science of it. I liked learning ways to be kind to the Earth and to encourage people to be kind to the environment.”

It took some time for Sarah to determine what she’d do with her bachelor’s degree in environmental science. When she did, it was as the founding program director for Sunbury Urban Farm of Columbus, Ohio, which offers a summer camp and other programs designed to show its participants how to “have a personal connection with the environment.”
Sarah described numerous activities ranging from lessons on how to grow your own food to simply “getting kids outside, digging in the dirt, exploring the creek, looking for fossils, looking for crayfish, and climbing trees.”

The Sunbury experience “is my way of using my environmental science degree to pay it forward and teach the next generation the importance of sustainability and protecting the environment,” she added.

Although Sarah is proud to be a third generation Pfeiffer alumna, she jokingly tells her mother not to expect her to contribute a fourth-generation member to the line-up. However, having worked with youth for much of her life (she has also directed Girl Scout camps), she’s in a position to influence the college choices of potentially thousands of kids.

“I’m sure I would recommend Pfeiffer to a young high schooler if they were looking for colleges,” she said. “It was such an amazing place and still is.”