July 14, 2024

Ryken Alumnus Credits Engaged Thinking and Late Bus

 Posted by St. Mary’s Ryken High School
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Sean Buffington, SMRSean Buffington, a 1987 graduate of St. Mary’s Ryken, credits the SMR faculty for teaching him to be “a responsible and engaged thinker, a person with the ability to contribute intellectually and the responsibility to do so.”

He calls up a list of mentors: Carolyn Williamson, Dennis Woytowich, Brother Rom, Brother Anthony, Steve Heibel, Brother Richard Angarola. And then, a smattering of memories that stand out: “Four years of Latin; learning BASIC with Sarah Kane (back when we barely knew what computers were and you had to save data on cassette tapes); Brother Rom’s reliable inscrutability, in chemistry, in physics, even just in the hallway; and Harry Hafer trying to wrangle us into shape for whichever musical was in rehearsal that year. It was a special time and place.”

He also gives credit to the late bus.

“After your activity ended,” he recalls, “you had the run of the school until the bus left. It was a little bit ‘Lord of the Flies,’ a little bit ‘Last of the Mohicans.’ Those were great afternoons: before you got home and really had to get started on homework, you were free. I’m not sure those moments of freedom can be easily carved out or discovered in secondary schools today; I hope they still can at SMR. I believe that freedom to dream or misbehave is absolutely crucial to the educational experience.”

“SMR was a unique environment; I suspect it still is,” he muses. “The faculty took us seriously—as intellectuals, as emotional beings, as young people with real questions about faith and morality and ethics. Their willingness—every day—to meet us where we were and to help us struggle and muddle through to some semblance of meaning, that still inspires and amazes me.”

Steeped in these unique moments and all of the experiences above, Sean headed to Harvard University after graduation. Yes, that Harvard.

“It was my dad who urged me to apply,” Sean explains. “I knew I had a strong academic record and test scores. But I really didn’t have a sense of the size of the university world and the range of opportunities it offered. More important, I couldn’t see myself—a kid from La Plata, from a modest family—studying and living and succeeding out in that world. I was focused on fine schools that weren’t so far away: William and Mary, Carnegie Mellon. I could see myself there, but not in Cambridge. My dad challenged me to challenge myself. He changed my life.”

Sean graduated from those famed hallowed halls with a string of accolades – summa cum laude with a bachelor’s of arts in English and American literature and Afro-American studies; a Harvard College National Scholar; and a member of the Phi Beta Kappa Society.

He continued his academic success as a Regents Fellow at the University of Michigan earning a master’s in American culture, and then headed back to Harvard to serve as assistant director of the alumni association. It was the beginning of a twelve-plus-year career there that was a steady progression in responsibilities and rising through the ranks, with the common thread being the managing and strategic planning for interdisciplinary and arts programs. His most recent position with Harvard was as associate provost for arts and culture and director of cultural programs, where he served as the university’s principal representative to cultural institutions in the Boston area.

Yet, he never pictured himself in university administration, “I suppose I had thought about being a professor,” Sean surmises. “I remember having a fantasy about becoming a writer. But an academic leader? Definitely not.”

“I’m sure I didn’t know that the kinds of positions I’ve held even existed when I was in high school—let alone that they might be interesting and that I might be good at them,” he continues. “I allowed myself to pursue opportunities as they presented themselves. I didn’t follow a plan. Which isn’t to say that having a plan is a bad thing. But I do think, even if you have one, that it’s important to keep your eyes open for those possibilities visible just off the path you’ve plotted for yourself. They may be dead ends; or they may prove to be the opportunity you didn’t know you were looking for.”

In 2007, he was presented with the opportunity to become the third president of the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. He accepted.

The University of the Arts defines itself as a creative community and, according to the institution’s website, is unique in the higher education world for the collaborative partnerships it fosters among its 2,100 undergraduate and graduate students: “Musicians collaborate with media makers. Photographers work with designers, writers with performers.”

Sean likens being a university president to “being a small town mayor: you have numerous constituencies—students, faculty, parents, alumni, staff—with very different interests and needs and problems… it can be tremendously difficult but is also exciting and terrifically rewarding.”

So, what does he do when he needs a break or to relax? He stays on campus to attend any one of the numerous art exhibitions, concerts, and theater and dance performances.  “Attending these events is, I suppose, work,” Sean admits, “but it’s a particularly fulfilling and stimulating sort of work, and I love it!”

Right now, like at many higher educational institutions, Sean’s primary work is tackling the transformation in education – reshaping the curricula and programs of the university to meet the rapidly changing demands of the professional creative and art fields for today and the future. Perfect work for the engaged thinker.


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