Employee Q&A: Senior Lecturer Emerita and Former Study Abroad Chaperone Donna Swaim

Employee Q&A: Senior Lecturer Emerita and Former Study Abroad Chaperone Donna Swaim

By Shelley SheltonUniversity Communications
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Donna Swaim stands beside a nearly life-size photograph that was taken on her first study abroad trip to Morocco, in 1996. The picture was taken by her frequent study abroad collaborator Mike Bonine, who died in December. (Shelley Shelton/University Communications)
Donna Swaim stands beside a nearly life-size photograph that was taken on her first study abroad trip to Morocco, in 1996. The picture was taken by her frequent study abroad collaborator Mike Bonine, who died in December. (Shelley Shelton/University Communications)
A lounge on the third level of the Student Union Memorial Center is named after Swaim. (Shelley Shelton/University Communications)
A lounge on the third level of the Student Union Memorial Center is named after Swaim. (Shelley Shelton/University Communications)

Name: Donna Swaim

Position: Senior lecturer emerita in religious studies; clinical lecturer in the College of Medicine; faculty fellow in athletics and in Native American Student Affairs

Number of years at the UA: 47

Favorite thing about working at the UA: I just love the students. I love the age of the students. I love experiencing change through them. I love the vitality of an academic unit. I love the vitality of the University and all that happens here. I can't take part in all of it. There aren't enough hours in a day.

Favorite poet: I have lots of favorite poets. Can I tell you about my favorite poem that I learned? There's a poem by Jane Kenyon called "Otherwise." … I love poetry because it's ambiguous. It can say so much and leave so much open to the person who's reading it.


Even people who have never taken a class or worked with Donna Swaim have probably heard her name. There's a lounge named after her on the third level of the Student Union Memorial Center. The University has a travel fellowship in her name. She played a major role in the University's study abroad program, beginning in the late 1970s and lasting into this decade. And despite being "semi-retired," she remains involved in all kinds of campus activities.

"I don't think there is anything, in my experience, that could substitute" for her world travels, she says. "Just looking at my own ability to understand the newspaper, to sense geographical relationships."

Swaim, 78, frequently frames her experiences in terms of everything that she was able to learn from them, and she says the best compliment she can pay a student when writing a recommendation letter is that the pupil is "truly intellectually curious."

Andrew Weil, director of the UA's Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, hired her in 1995 when he was beginning the program, bringing her on to facilitate a class on spirituality in medicine. There, she began teaching poetry and the ambiguity of human knowledge in relationship to medicine. She went on to teach a medical humanities class with a strong poetry foundation.

She also works half time as a faculty fellow in the athletics department and Native American Student Affairs – getting to know the students, finding out what their lives are like and what their major is and what they can do with it.

"A faculty fellow's sole responsibility is to be there for the undergraduates," she says.

She still teaches one class in religious studies. Not long ago, she says, someone referred to her in conversation as a legend.

She laughs at the thought.

"The only thing you need to do to be a legend is live long enough," Swaim says.

She recently took time to talk to Lo Que Pasa about her nearly half century of work for the University of Arizona.

What does your job entail?
All the time I was doing course work for the Ph.D. I was a T.A. (teaching assistant) in the English department. I taught freshman English. I did that for five years. That was the limit for how long you could be a T.A. And then everyone assumed that I wouldn't have a job at the University. But I wanted to keep learning. I was not particularly aiming for a Ph.D. but I was loving the class work. I was loving the learning. And so I just kept taking course work. But the gentleman who was head of classics … who also ran the humanities program, invited two of us who had completed our five-year T.A.-ship, he invited us to teach one section of humanities. Absolutely temporary. And that was … "The Ancient World." And she and I both worked like Trojans. Because we were teaching material we'd never had, literature, philosophy and art history. But it was so exciting learning all of it. And then she finished her degree and left, but the next year, (then-humanities chairman) Dr. (Garnet D.) Percy offered me another "absolutely temporary" one-year appointment in humanities. … I taught humanities "absolutely temporarily" one-year appointments for 21 years. And in '78 – I had started in '63 – but in '78 I finished my dissertation. I got my Ph.D., and then they hired me in humanities, full time. But even then, I was still temporary, one-year, if I didn't have a tenure-line position. And then finally, and I don't remember what year it was, athletics coaches could get three-year appointments, and so the then-provost said, well there were some faculty members that he thought should get three-year. And so for a while I was on three-year appointments all the rest of my career in humanities until I semi-retired, and now I'm back to one-year appointments. But that's all right. … It has been a glorious opportunity to learn, and to learn with young people.

What did you like best about the program?
That humanities program I was sorry to see end because it gave students and those of us who were teaching such a broad foundation of ... our Western culture – how it developed, where it came from.

What is the College of Humanities like now?
There's no interdisciplinary humanities program. It started in 1932. There were three interdisciplinary two-semester courses. One in the sciences, one in the social sciences, one in humanities. And the sciences and the social sciences didn't last very long. But ours lasted from 1932 until 2003. And by that time we had 10 tenured faculty. We had a major. We had eight liberal arts degrees. And then for a number of reasons, primarily ostensibly to save money, it was eliminated and all of us were dispersed to different departments.

So how did you end up in your current position?
Because I was already semi-retired, and because I had shared an office with Father (Robert) Burns, back in the '70s when he was starting the religious studies program, he told me I could teach whatever I wanted to for him. For as long as I wanted to. And because I had already designed an upper-division humanities course called "Spirituality in the Arts," which was cross-listed with religious studies, he assumed I could do that with no adjustment at all. But then I took the ancient world material, the 250A material, and got an organizing text called "The River of God," and taught that course for five fall semesters under the title of "The Roots of Early Christianity." And I learned a great deal. But then I realized that "Spirituality in the Arts" had a huge impact on students. ... I have to have a new syllabus, a new theme, new reading materials every semester. … And so it was stimulating for me as well. After five semesters of the other course, I sort of had it down and I enjoyed the creative element more than I did the repetitive. So I've been doing "Spirituality in the Arts" every semester.

How long have you been semi-retired?
You know, (on) that I'm not completely sure! ... Well, I've been semi-retired, I would say 16 years at least. Maybe this is my 17th year, but 16 years is my best guess.

What has been your involvement with the study abroad program?
In '77 my daughter, who went to Stanford … spent 11 and a half months in Europe on her own with a pack on her back. … I decided that it was so good for her at that age. … My husband (an architect) ... got a German shipbuilder client who wanted to build a house in Tucson. They wanted to fly him over so he could … get a sense of how they lived. … We spent eight days with the client and then we had arranged to rent a car in Southern France and we continued to travel … And I can remember being at the museum in Paris, the Louvre, I can remember practically running through certain sections, saying to (my husband) Bob, "Oh, look, Bob, I had no idea it was that small!" Artwork I had been teaching with slides. That was when I knew that I had to go back to Europe more often. So after (my daughter) Katy came back in spring of '77 I decided I was going to do a study abroad trip. I had a group of students that had had several humanities courses from me. So we all took intensive French together in the fall and again in the spring, we just audited, and then when I proposed this trip … the gentleman who was head of international programs said he felt I was misleading them on how inexpensively we could do it. ... So we went anyway. Students didn't get any credit. We paid all our own way. And it was glorious. … So then I started planning a trip that they would let me do as a study-abroad, which we did in '82. (She began doing annual trips in 1985.) … The '96 trip was to Morocco and southern Spain. And Dr. (Mike) Bonine (a UA geographer) and my daughter, Katy, who had spent all that time in Morocco, they planned the trip. Boy, did I learn a lot. Because a geographer can justify going anywhere. … In 2003, I had a liver transplant. So my only travel was to Jacksonville, Florida, to the Mayo transplant center there. … When (Mike) and I were debating what trip to do this past summer, we decided to do the Black Sea coast. So with Mike's help, but primarily his planning, we planned a five-week trip to Istanbul, the Black Sea coast, a week in Georgia and a week in Armenia. Marvelous trip. Unfortunately he got sick two weeks before the trip, and he didn't get to go. So I went with six students, and it was a marvelous trip. … And he died on the 21st of December. … I'm extremely grateful to him because he gave me the world. (The School of Middle Eastern & North African Studies is holding a memorial gathering for Mike Bonine from 3 to 5 p.m. Jan. 30.)

So now you're finished with study abroad?
I think so. Primarily because of my age and the fact, as long as I was planning these with Mike Bonine, the amount of paperwork and the amount of organization and the work recruiting the students and meeting during the spring to prepare for the trip, I just want to focus more on here. Which doesn't mean that I won't travel. I have a former student that I've traveled with twice. He and I may be going back to Turkey for two weeks this summer. … It's not like I'm going to stop learning or stop traveling. I just am not going to do the full-blown study-abroad, unless somebody else wants to plan it and take me along in their suitcase and then I'd be happy to do it.

For someone who's semi-retired, you certainly seem to stay very busy.
Oh, I'm ridiculously busy. But the difference between full-time and semi-retirement? I only do what I want to do. I'm not on anybody's committee. I don't write any reports. I have no budgets to concern myself with. My reason for semi-retiring when I did, I think probably my body was slowing down, because my need for the transplant was an autoimmune disease. It was a gradual scarring of the bile ducts. Well, I didn't ever pin my unwillingness to work 12-hour days anymore to the fact that physically I probably wasn't able to do it with the same level of satisfaction. … I don't want to take on anymore study-abroad. Discretion is the better part of valor. You need to recognize what you can do really well. Because for years I did study-abroad and carried a backpack and sometimes slept in the woods and that sort of thing. No way I could do that now.

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