Alumni One on One: Individual Interviews
Jon Avnet ’71
Film/Broadway Producer & Director
Jon Avnet’s credits include Risky Business, The Burning Bed, Fried Green Tomatoes, Righteous Kill—a 2008 film starring Robert De Niro and Al Pacino—and the critically acclaimed television series Boomtown. He also producedSky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, as well as the award-winning Broadway productions Spamalot and Pillowman, which were nominated for a combined 20 Tony Awards. Avnet says Sarah Lawrence helped him hone the most important skill for anyone trying to create high-quality work in film: original thinking.
“At Sarah Lawrence, instead of learning to distrust your impulses, you were told, ‘See where they go, where they lead,’” Avnet says. As a student, his passion for performance led him to the La Mama theatre company in New York City. “I did everything from hanging lights to directing stuff that had been written by other Sarah Lawrence students.” A Sarah Lawrence education calls for high initiative, Avnet says. “But if you’re a self-starter and willing to accept the challenge of uncertainty, which is pretty daunting, it’s a great place.”
Damani Baker ’96
Filmmaker & SLC Faculty Member
Since his graduation, Damani Baker has founded Soulfire Films, his own production company; directed and produced films for PBS, the Sundance Institute, and Danny Glover’s Carrie Productions; and been named one of “25 new faces in independent film” by Filmmaker magazine. After studying both African American history and film at Sarah Lawrence, Baker received his MFA from the UCLA School of Film and Television. He worked as Glover’s personal assistant on the set of Beloved, then went on to direct and produce documentaries and shorts.
Baker is currently developing feature films, including the upcoming documentary Still Bill, about singer/songwriter Bill Withers. He’s also back at Sarah Lawrence, teaching film and working on several productions. He recently directed a music video with fellow alumna Maiysha Simpson '97 for her Grammy-nominated song, "Wanna Be.”
Barbara Bowman ’50
Educator & Co-founder, The Erikson Institute
Early-childhood-education expert and advocate Barbara Bowman co-founded the Erikson Institute in 1966 to provide comprehensive training for teachers in Head Start—a preschool program for disadvantaged children. Since then, she has become a nationally recognized expert in the field and has consulted with universities in China and Iran.
Bowman has served on White House panels, research councils for the National Academy of Sciences, and task forces for Chicago Public Schools (where she is currently chief officer of the Office of Early Childhood Education). A tireless activist for equal educational access for all children, Bowman received the 2005 Harold W. McGraw Jr. Prize in Education, an award that recognizes work in early childhood education and teacher professional development. She was also presented the SLC 2008 Alumnae/i Citation for Achievement.
Nancy Cantor ’74
Chancellor & President, Syracuse University
Nancy Cantor is the 11th chancellor and president of Syracuse University—a research university of more than 19,000 students—as well as distinguished professor of psychology and women's studies in the College of Arts and Sciences. She has held a variety of administrative positions encompassing all aspects of a research university, from chair of the department of psychology at Princeton to dean of the graduate school, provost, and executive vice president for academic affairs at the University of Michigan, as well as chancellor of University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is co-author or co-editor of three books and has written numerous book chapters and scientific journal articles.
Cantor is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a member of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences. She also has received the Distinguished Scientific Award for an Early Career Contribution to Psychology from the American Psychological Association, the Woman of Achievement Award from the Anti-Defamation League, and the 2008 Carnegie Corporation Academic Leadership Award.
Mark Goodman ’83
Lawyer & Former Assistant U.S. Attorney
Now a partner with the New York city law firm Debevoise & Plimpton, Goodman thought of law as dry and not particularly interesting before coming to Sarah Lawrence. But during his second semester, a constitutional law course changed his mind. “I realized during that semester the extent to which the law pulled together strands of the other subjects I was studying, including history, sociology, philosophy, and even an element of theatre,” Goodman says. “It was also combative, which I liked.”
Since he graduated from the New York University School of Law, Goodman has worked at a major Manhattan firm where he participated in high-profile cases such as those involving flag burning and the death penalty—which were argued before the United States Supreme Court—and business disputes over billion-dollar mergers and acquisitions. He has also served as an Assistant U.S. Attorney in New York City.
Clarion Johnson ’72
Physician & Global Medical Director, Exxon Mobil Corporation
Clarion Johnson directs delivery of medical services to more than 110,000 Exxon Mobil and affiliate employees worldwide. In addition to traditional work-related health services, his department provides medical services for the many Exxon Mobil employees exploring challenging environments in Africa, China, and Southeast Asia. Johnson is board certified in internal medicine, cardiology, and occupational medicine.
Johnson studied medicine at Yale, and in addition to a cardiology fellowship, he did a military/basic science fellowship at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, followed by two years as a postdoctoral student in the field of microwave research. He has published articles in numerous fields and is a member of the Urban League advisory board’s Black Executive Exchange Program. Johnson, who was student body president and captain of the basketball team at SLC, is a marathon runner and a black-belt martial artist.
Porochista Khakpour '00
Novelist & Essayist
English Faculty, Bucknell University
Porochista Khakpour was born in Tehran and raised in the Los Angeles area. After graduating from Sarah Lawrence, she attended the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars MA program. She has been awarded fellowships from Johns Hopkins University, Northwestern University, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and Yaddo. Her 2007 book,Sons and Other Flammable Objects, was a New York Times “Editor’s Choice” and earned the California Book Award for first fiction.
She began writing as an arts and entertainment journalist. Her subjects ranged from clubs to couture; from Maggie Gyllenhaal to Fabio (Khakpour’s first feature at age 16); and from New York City’s night life (Paper magazine bar columnist, 2000-2001, as well as New York magazine online bar critic) to rural Illinois’ most dangerous skydiving compound (2004 staff-writer stint at The Chicago Reader). Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Daily Beast, The Village Voice, The Chicago Reader, Paper, Flaunt, Nylon,Bidoun, Alef, Canteen, nerve.com and FiveChapters.com, among others. Khakpour currently teaches fiction at Bucknell University.
W. Ian Lipkin ’74
Physician & Columbia University
Researcher in Infectious Diseases
An internationally recognized expert in pathogen discovery, W. Ian Lipkin is professor of epidemiology, neurology, and pathology at Columbia University and principal investigator and scientific director of the Northeast Biodefense Center. Researching diseases of the central nervous system, he led the team that used unique molecular methods to identify the West Nile Virus as the cause of the encephalitis outbreak in New York State in 1999.
Lipkin is also a pioneer in AIDS research. More recently, as a result of his work advising the Chinese government on dealing with severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), he was asked to help run the first infectious disease center in China. “Sarah Lawrence gave me something critical to success in the long term: the confidence and the ability to think independently, to exploit serendipity, to be the ‘abnormal’ scientist who invents radical new theories.”
Julianna Margulies ’89
Actor, Film, Stage & Television
Perhaps best known for her roles on the acclaimed series ER (including a recent return appearance for its final season) and The Sopranos, Julianna Margulies was active in theatre while a student at Sarah Lawrence. Along with film and television, she has continued to take stage roles, appearing in an MCC Theater production of Kate Robin's Intrigue With Faye, a Lincoln Center production of Jon Robin Baitz's Ten Unknowns (for which she won the Lucille Lortel Award), and The Vagina Monologues.
Margulies played the lead character in the 2008 series Canterbury's Law, and has appeared in films including Snakes on a Plane and the upcoming City Island. Margulies won an Emmy Award and two Screen Actors Guild Awards for her role as nurse Carol Hathaway on ER and was nominated for a Golden Globe. While a student, she was involved in New York City performing arts and attributes her ability to analyze scripts and create roles to her academic studies at Sarah Lawrence.
Elisabeth Röhm ’96
Actor, Film & Television
As an actor, Elisabeth Röhm makes a lot of demands on herself. She’s her own boss, and a tough one at that. Röhm made her name as the dedicated detective in TV’s Angel, and then as an ambitious assistant district attorney on the series Law & Order. She has worked in films including the soon-to-be-released Aftermath and The Spy and the Sparrow.
Röhm says she found success for herself by setting her own goals and sticking to them—much as she was taught to do at Sarah Lawrence under the donning system. “That type of learning makes you your own best teacher,” says Röhm. “It also makes you accountable. And as an adult, it serves you well, especially if you—like many artists—have an unstructured life.” An independent professional who isn’t interested in climbing a corporate ladder, Röhm describes herself as an entrepreneur—just one who prefers to draw outside of the lines and set her own boundaries.
Nancy Spector '81
Chief Curator, Guggenheim Museum
Nancy Spector received her M.Phil. in art history from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Since 1989, she has been a curator of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, where she has organized exhibitions of conceptual photography, Matthew Barney's Cremaster Cycle, and Richard Prince. She co-organized the exhibits Moving Pictures and Singular Forms (Sometimes Repeated). She was one of the curators of Monument to Now, an exhibition of the Dakis Joannou Collection, which premiered in Athens as part of the Olympics program.
Spector was adjunct curator of the 1997 Venice Biennale and co-organizer of the first Berlin Biennial in 1998. In 2007 she was the U.S. commissioner for the Venice Biennale, where she presented an exhibition of work by Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Spector has also contributed to numerous books on contemporary visual culture with essays on artists including Maurizio Cattelan, Luc Tuymans, Douglas Gordon, Tino Sehgal, and Anna Gaskell. She is a regular columnist for Frieze magazine and a recipient of the Peter Norton Family Foundation Curators Award.
Marisa Vande Velde '03
Former Marketing Specialist
Before coming to Sarah Lawrence, Marisa Vande Velde had been around the block a few times—if serving as a member of the U.S. women’s Olympic cycling team counts. A competitive, professional biker, she decided it was time to go back for her college education. After two false starts, she found a match in Sarah Lawrence. “I knew what I wanted, and that was independent thought, great teaching, small classes,” she recalls. “And that’s how I happened upon Sarah Lawrence—it was all that and more.”
Following graduation, Vande Velde started working in corporate marketing. She found her skills were a good match. Along with strong writing, “I learned how to work independently and think for myself at Sarah Lawrence and that really carried me through.” Following her passion, she is now pursuing a career in the culinary world in Chicago, attending cooking school and working in restaurants. “You have to have faith in yourself to do such a thing,” she says. “Sarah Lawrence taught me that, too—to follow your chosen path and to think independently.”