In Memoriam: Donna Swaim

In Memoriam: Donna Swaim

By Eric SwedlundCollege of Humanities
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Donna Swaim
Donna Swaim

Donna Swaim, a revered teacher and mentor whose 50-year career at the University of Arizona stretched broadly across campus, from humanities to medicine to athletics, and included trips to dozens of countries for study abroad programs, died Nov. 8 at the age of 86.

From 1964 until she retired as senior lecturer emerita in 2014, Swaim taught courses in English, humanities and religious studies, served as a faculty fellow in Arizona Athletics and Native American Student Affairs, and led students on 24 study abroad trips.

"Donna Swaim played a unique role as a citizen of the University and an important member of her department while also serving with her special touch as a faculty fellow in athletics. She connected our student-athletes with the larger University community as a beloved friend and mentor," said President Emeritus Peter Likins, who led the the University from 1997 to 2006.

College of Humanities Dean Alain-Philippe Durand says Swaim's endless curiosity led her to eagerly embrace both world travel and small, personal interactions with people, especially her students.

"Donna Swaim is one of the most beloved teachers in the entire history of the University of Arizona," Durand said. "For 50 years, she opened her students' minds to a bigger world through her humanities and religious studies classes, her service as a faculty fellow by leading life-changing study abroad trips. The best teachers leave a lasting impact on the lives of their students, and Dr. Swaim changed the lives of thousands. She loved every one of her students and she remains an inspiration to all of us in the College of Humanities. We are profoundly thankful that our world has been shaped by her dedication, passion and love."

In a 2012 interview with Lo Que Pasa, Swaim said there weren't enough hours in a day to take part in everything she'd like to at the University. But the students were always her favorite part. "I just love the students. I love the age of the students. I love experiencing change through them," Swaim said.

Swaim's students loved her as well.

"Her class was the kind of experience students would hold with them forever," said Melissa Vito, former Senior Vice President for Student Affairs, Enrollment Management and Strategic Initiatives, who took Swaim's humanities course as an 18-year-old student and remembers the inspiration that pushed her to work harder, resulting in an A-plus paper that Vito still has. "She completely motivated me and changed my life, really taught me to understand the value of the humanities."

Later, in Vito's career as a student affairs administrator, she saw Swaim's impact on subsequent generations of students, both in the classroom and through the Faculty Fellows program. 

"She was the one I would always recommend - 'Get a class with Donna Swaim,' and so many did. My kids had her when they were in school," Vito said. "She could connect with everybody. She approached everything with a real curiosity and lack of judgment. She believed in everybody's potential and as a result everybody wanted to live up to that."

Karen Seat, head of the Department of Religious Studies and Classics, said Swaim had an enduring popularity among students. Every semester, students rushed to sign up for her class. 

"She always felt like she had something to learn from each and every student, which helped students realize their own value as contributors to the human story," Seat said. 

Swaim was the first faculty member to support the C.A.T.S. Life Skills Program for student-athletes when it was formed in the early 1990s, said Kathleen "Rocky" LaRose, retired deputy director of athletics. 

"She was a cheerleader for the program across campus and an essential part of its growth. But it was her strong connection and one-on-one interaction with student-athletes that really made a difference, not just in their academic world, but in their lives going forward," she said.

Swaim was born on a farm near Mitchell, Nebraska in 1934, the youngest of five siblings. In 1951, she met Bob Swaim when they were students at the University of Nebraska. The couple married in 1953 and moved to Tucson in 1958. They spent a year abroad in London from 1961 to 1962, which inspired Swaim's travel ambitions. She earned both her master's degree and a doctorate from the University of Arizona. 

She led some of the University's first study abroad trips, starting in 1979, before there was even a formal structure to do so. In total, she led students on 24 trips abroad, visiting a wide array of countries including England, France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Spain, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Austria, Slovakia, Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, South Africa, Lesotho, Zimbabwe, Senegal, Mali, Turkey, Georgia, Armenia, Romania, Moldova, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Russia, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Nepal and Cambodia.

"They were making it up as they went, traveling all over the world," Seat said. "Being immersed in another culture transforms one's mindset more than any other learning. It can't be replicated. She really wanted students to get outside the familiar and she really prioritized experiencing new cultures in person."

Even after she retired, Swaim connected with students through scholarship funds established in her name.

Chelsea Forer, a 2019 graduate in religious studies, got her first chance to travel abroad, studying in Bhutan in 2017 as a recipient of the Donna Swaim International Award for Religious Studies.

"My trip to Bhutan expanded my boundaries to spaces I did not know possible," Forer said. "When the opportunity arose to meet the woman behind the scholarship, I was immediately embraced both physically and intellectually in the vigor that so characterized Dr. Swaim. She was always so proud that students such as myself were experiencing places and cultures around the globe. I hope to continue to explore throughout my life, carrying her advice with me across the globe to celebrate her timeless influence."

Swaim received the Five Star Faculty Award in 1985 and the Honors Lounge in the Student Union is named after her. In addition to her role in athletics, Swaim spent four years as a faculty fellow for Native American Student Affairs. In 1995, Andrew Weil, founder and director of the Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine, hired her to facilitate a class on spirituality in medicine. From 1978 to 1986, she also served as a volunteer teacher in the state prison system.

Swaim was passionate about having her students see how people and cultures in the world are connected, Vito said. She remembers studying Salvador Dalí's painting "The Persistence of Memory" in Swaim's class; when she finally got to see it in person Museum of Modern Art in New York, she texted Swaim.

"She really epitomized the interdisciplinary humanities program. Her academic area drew her into art, literature and architecture, so she had a lot of areas that connected her with others," Vito said. "All of that really comes together through the humanities and she was always able to convey it so that students could feel it and see it in a practical way and understand how it all comes together."

"More than anybody I've ever known, I see her legacy in little and big ways across so many people's lives," Vito said.

Swaim is survived by her husband, Bob; her son, Phil Swaim; and her daughter, Katy Brown.

Donations in her memory can be made to the Donna Swaim International Award for Religious Studies. You can learn more about the award by watching this 2019 video from the College of Humanities:

A version of this story originally appeared on the College of Humanities website.

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