Sometimes it comes when you realize your long-term career doesn’t bring you the same great zest for life it once did. Or a health scare forces you to reevaluate the way you live your life. In the following stories shared by alumni, these moments don’t serve as interruptions — rather, they’re the introductions to new chapters. 

Giving Thanks

When it comes to her career, Ellen Bissett ’93 DeRiggi isn’t one to watch paint dry. Thankfully, there’s already some great wallpaper at the White House Inn. 

In the grand hallway of the Greek Revival-style mansion in Wilmington, Vt., that wallpaper has welcomed guests since the inn’s infancy, more than 100 years ago. It’s so central to the building’s long history, new owner DeRiggi centered the hotel’s recent renovation around the wallpaper’s pastoral 18th-century scene. 

“There’s something really charming about this inn that draws people in,” says Ellen Bissett ’93 DeRiggi, owner of the White House Inn in Wilmington, Vt. She bought the business after enjoying family vacations there. Photo by Michael Wilson

DeRiggi, a longtime resident of Long Island, had been traveling to southern Vermont with her children for years, enjoying skiing expeditions during their cozy winter vacations. One annual tradition that was never missed: Thanksgiving at the White House Inn. Sitting atop a hill overlooking the Deerfield Valley, the hotel is renowned for its detailed architecture and historical features including a bank vault, original built-in telephones, hidden staircases, numerous fireplaces, and antique woodwork. There’s even rumored to be a resident ghost floating through the posh hallways. “There’s something really charming about this inn that draws people in,” DeRiggi says.  

Maybe the force of the place is what drew her in. At a moment of sweet serendipity, DeRiggi found herself back at the White House Inn in December 2021 — this time, as its owner. The tale reads like the plot of a Hallmark movie. During the COVID-19 lockdown, a busy, big-city lawyer began researching real estate listings, dreaming of owning a historic inn in a snow-covered, quaint country village. Then, she learned that the sprawling white mansion was recently in foreclosure and was listed for sale. It’s where she spent so many special times — wouldn’t it be so nice to go back to those days?

With her brother-in-law, DeRiggi decided to take the leap and buy the property. “Probably a lot of [my family and friends] think I’m crazy and really don’t have the nerve to tell me to my face,” DeRiggi laughs. “I never would’ve thought in a million years that this would be something that I would’ve done. I feel that it was meant to be.”

It’s safe to say, Thanksgiving this year will be at the White House Inn. 

Photo by Michael Wilson

The White House Inn was built in 1915 and offers 18 guestrooms. It sits on a 20-acre property in Wilmington, Vt. 

The inn’s restaurant, Clara’s Cucina Italiana, is named after the original woman of the house, Clara Brown. She’s said to still haunt the hotel. 

Property management isn’t new to DeRiggi. Though the inn was her first big purchase, she previously worked in her family business, overseeing the Long Island Aquarium and a Hyatt Place Hotel, and is also part owner of the Fire Island Beach House, a beach resort property on Fire Island, N.Y. 

Renovating the hotel is a long-term process. “After years of neglect, there has been a lot of work to do to restore the property to its former glory,” DeRiggi says. 

The wallpaper, created by the French company Zuber et Cie, is hand-painted from 19th-century wooden blocks.

‘It’s All Dovetailing’

In the late ’90s, Patrick Bobst ’84 was living in Charlottesville, Va., working in software development, when an electric little thought bolted through his mind. What if I went into social work? He’d always been a people person, the man jumping at the chance to help others through tough situations at work. 

After a career in IT, Patrick Bobst ’84 decided to pivot to
mental health counseling. Photo by Andre Chung

Bobst became enamored with the idea: “I went so far as to go talk to some people at James Madison University, which is about an hour and a half away from me,” he remembers. 

But the way his nuclear family unit was structured, in which he acted as the breadwinner with his wife as homemaker, Bobst was apprehensive to make a move. The financial element of the deal was paramount in the final decision: He’d have to shell out approximately $50,000 (nearly $100,000 in today’s money) for tuition, along with taking a significant pay cut. “It seemed untenable,” he says. 

Bobst set the idea aside and carried on with his life, which looked like this: After graduating with a computer science degree from Colgate, Bobst began working in information technology as a coder. He enjoyed the puzzle-solving aspect of his job, relishing getting called in to take corrective action when a piece of technology went wonky. 

Fast forward to 2017: Bobst’s company, Retrieval Systems Inc., had just been acquired by a private equity firm, which outsourced the business’ work. After the sale, Bobst, who had worked his way up to a management position, was tasked with getting the outsource team up and running — he enjoyed the personable aspects of the merger, like building new relationships and implementing new mechanisms to increase company success. But the merger also came with significant pressure to “cut cost to the bone without disrupting service,” he remembers. “It was just brutal.”

Bobst stuck it out for a few years, while his children went off to college and he underwent an unexpected divorce. During the COVID-19 pandemic, he looked around to find himself alone. But, sometimes, loneliness breeds opportunity. He felt a thought prickle in the back of his mind: The structure of his life had changed, so why couldn’t his career?

 Next year, Bobst will graduate with his master’s in mental health counseling. He’s currently completing his internship at Empowerment Therapy Center, rotating through cases from teenagers to the elderly. After graduation, he’d like to focus on people like the previous version of himself: “people going through the corporate grind.” 

He felt a thought prickle in the back of his mind: The structure of his life had changed, so why couldn’t his career?

A series of events had to happen for Bobst to be in this position, and he says he’s thankful to be providing mental health resources in an era with so many challenges. “It’s all dovetailing,” he says of the timing. “I can’t overstate how important it feels to give back, particularly in these days.” 

The Journey

The voices had become too loud. 

Shock jocks had taken over the radio waves, producing content that was often sexually explicit or more generally indecent. “There was a lot of the residual or ancillary Howard Stern effect, which is ‘How outrageous can you be in order to get people to tune in, to listen, to stay listening?’” Chuck Dickemann ’78 says of radio in the early ’90s. As someone who’d spent decades in the industry — spanning music, sports, and news, both on and off the air — some of the best moments in Dickemann’s life happened because he worked in radio. To him, it was a place to introduce new, eclectic music to listeners, or give them access to the final seconds of a raucous sporting event. 

When he realized that shock jocks, who chose to spend their time on-air telling off-color jokes, were there to stay, he reached a tipping point. The way the industry was moving wasn’t an example he wanted to model for his grade school–aged children. 

He sat at the dinner table across from his wife after work one evening. “Leslie, I can’t do it,” he told her. “I can’t go to work every day and encourage these people to be outrageous and stop just short of setting somebody’s hair on fire, then come home and with you raise two boys to be something other than what I’m doing during the day. 

“I’m living two lives, and I can’t do that.” 

Two roads had diverged: “I keep coming back to the most important part of that journey,” Dickemann says.

For Chuck Dickemann ’78, faith was a catalyst for change in his life. “It turned out I had to rely on my faith in the Lord,” he says. Photo by Andre Chung

Pause for a commercial break: Dickemann’s road to radio started in the basement of the Kendrick-Eaton-Dodge complex, then-home of WRCU. At that time, the radio station’s focus had shifted mainly to music, and Dickemann played “new medium rock” and “popular flavor” during his show. “From high school, I was enthralled with the broadcast industry and spent most of my free time at Colgate in the WRCU studios,” he says. 

After graduation, Dickemann spent a decade on-air at radio stations around the country, like WASH-FM in Washington, D.C., and WWYZ-FM in Hartford, Conn. At the same time, he honed his talents as a program director, managing the on-air staff and fine-tuning the stations’ musical content — an area in which he’d later focus his career. The Colgate psychology major eventually transitioned to a full-time management role and married his wife, a programming assistant and co-worker at a D.C.-based nostalgia radio station. Then, Dickemann took an assistant program director job at news station WBZ in Boston. “That was really the first change; it was just a difference in format. I had left the music part behind and gotten into news and talk [radio].” Then, a host of cities: Pittsburgh, Houston, Minneapolis. 

Back to our regularly scheduled programming: “I started sending out résumés like crazy,” says Dickemann, 120 to be exact. He was looking for a natural leap — a job in media. The couple also wanted to move back home to Virginia, so they could be close to their parents while raising their boys. The job market was tough, though, and no one was biting. 

“We need to turn this over to the Lord,” thought Dickemann, who is a devout Christian. He and his wife prayed daily, asking for additional prayers from members of their Minneapolis congregation. Within 14 days, his prayers were answered. Dickemann had an offer from a company that developed software to create advertising placements in audio and video streaming. It was the early days of platforms like Pandora, which relied on ad revenue to steam free music for users. In short, he’d landed a role in a booming field. The credit, he says, goes to God. “It turned out I had to rely on my faith in the Lord … once I did that, all these things started falling into place one after another, after another, after another,” Dickemann says. 

Credits: Dickemann has since moved on from that job and now works as a project manager for the federal government, managing technology changes for agencies like the TSA. He took the position after a brief try at retirement. But before he accepted the post, he had a conversation with God. He does so before any big change: “I just say, ‘I don’t know how this is going to pan out, but I know you have a plan.’”

The Rest Is History

Genevieve Kocienda ’86 wants you to know that the archives at Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School aren’t in some dusty old closet. “It’s not some sort of sanctum sanctorum where no one is allowed in, either,” she says. 

A 223-year history is kept in the institution’s expansive collection space, and with Kocienda at the helm, the door is always open. Objects within the institution’s collections contain a window into the school’s past: photographs of women students conducting a science experiment in a 1960s lab, 19th-century needlepoint, and documentation about people enslaved during the organization’s history. As the school archivist and someone who believes in hands-on learning, Kocienda tries each day to entice students to enter the archives “and delve into the school’s long and important history,” she says. Kocienda is the sole archivist at the school, a role referred to in the archives field as a “lone arranger,” and is responsible for a host of duties. Among them: accessioning new donations; organizing, preserving, and cataloging existing collections; creating exhibits about the school’s history; and engaging the interest of students, faculty, staff, alumnae, and independent researchers. 

Kocienda thought back to times in her life when she’d found the courage to make a change. 

When freelance work began bleeding into her personal life, Genevieve Kocienda ’86 decided to pursue a career she’d put on the back burner many years before. Photo by Andre Chung

 In addition to her regular archival duties and providing instruction in the archives, Kocienda contributes to an ongoing project documenting the history of enslaved people at Georgetown Visitation. For her part, Kocienda is helping to identify archival records that will be used in creating a curriculum for students about the subject. “There’s a lot of grappling with that history,” she says. She’s also led the charge to digitize ledgers detailing the buying and selling of enslaved people by the school, both for transparency’s sake, and so they’re easily available for researchers. “Archives must tell everyone’s story with as much honesty and accuracy as possible,” Kocienda notes.

Four years ago, her life looked more like this: Seated at a desk in her East Greenwich, R.I., home, Kocienda tap tap tapped away on her keyboard. She was on deadline for yet another short-term freelance project, her umpteenth in the last 16 years. Writing and editing educational materials for publishers was once her passion, but the hustle of participating in the gig economy had taken away the autonomy she had over her time. She often juggled five projects at once and had to cancel long-awaited vacations to meet updated deadlines. “A lot of times that [meant] putting my own life aside, and that got really old,” Kocienda remembers.

Kocienda thought back to times in her life when she’d found the courage to make a change. There was the time she flew to Japan on a Colgate study group, then stayed and taught ESL because she wanted something different from her life in the States. There was the grind of going to culinary school at night, followed by working long hours at the four-star Tribeca restaurant Chanterelle as a pastry chef, to shift out of her daytime editing job at Oxford University Press. There was earning her master’s in anthropology from SUNY Buffalo, to give herself the chance to move careers if she desired. 

But, then, there was that one change she skipped, back in 1991.

“My mother saw an ad in the New York Times for an NYU one-year master’s program for information science, which was a newish field at that time,” Kocienda remembers. “She said, ‘I think this is what you should do.’” The thought of slogging through more lengthy research papers and acquiring more debt made Kocienda groan. Without hesitation, she told her mother it wasn’t in the cards. Knowingly, her mother said, “Well, I think this is the future…” Kocienda shook her head.

But, as fate would have it, it’d be her future. 

“I thought I was too old to start yet another career, but as my husband said, ‘You’re going to turn 54 no matter what you do, you might as well bet on yourself,’” Kocienda remembers. So, in 2019, Kocienda got up from her keyboard and attended the University of Maryland’s master’s program in library and information science. She graduated in 2021 after completing an internship at the Library of Congress and an archives field study at the B&O Railroad Museum in Baltimore. Though it looked like a 180-degree turn from the outside, it was just another example of a time when Kocienda took a chance on herself. Looking back, “I’ve [had] a lot of transformation,” she says. 

Authentication Successful

The responsibilities of life can become heavy and can hinder us from being truly authentic,” says Jennifer Braak ’86 Salem. It was that realization that led her on the ultimate journey: traveling the country in her Winnebago Solis Pocket — a 17-foot camper van — hoping to tap into her deepest self. 

Like many people, 2020 was a difficult year for Salem, but the years following proved to be even more strenuous. After nearly 28 years of marriage, she and her husband divorced, and they sold their large family home. Then, in early 2022, she underwent two spinal surgeries, including a spinal fusion. After recovery, she looked around: Her children had begun their adult lives, one attending medical school and the other planning a wedding. She was alone for the first time in a long time, thinking about the last time she flew solo: “I traveled by myself for a month while on my junior year study abroad and took other camping and European trips by myself,” she says. “I used to be independent and brave.” A voice inside told her she could do it again.

 “What am I waiting for?” she asked herself.

On Sept. 7, 2022, after terminating her rental lease, downsizing her belongings and putting everything else into storage, and loaning her Subaru to her daughter, she set out on the open road. 

“For a California girl, this landscape is why I wanted to come to the southeastern seaboard,” says Salem.

Why an RV van? 

“People hit the road for so many different reasons,” Salem says. For her, she wanted to see parts of the country on her bucket list (such as the Outer Banks of North Carolina, Charleston, S.C., and Savannah, Ga.). Additionally, she says she never felt like she fit in with her local community, which made leaving easier. She’d done a four-week national park road trip a few years prior, sleeping in a tent, so she felt comfortable traveling long distances alone. Her small van allows her easy access to cities and standard parking spots.

En Route

Salem started out traveling north along the California and Oregon coasts. She then headed to the East Coast to see the southeastern seaboard and is now traveling along the southern seaboard. 

The Specs

In her Winnebago, which is shorter than a Chevy Suburban, Salem lives with the bare necessities — sometimes people are surprised at how “home-like” her setup is, she says. “Interestingly, women especially seem to be hung up on there not being a bathroom in the van,” she laughs. “I do have a bucket toilet with a comfortable seat that hides away in a cabinet.” She has both an indoor and outdoor stove to heat up water for food, drinks, and washing her face; most campgrounds have bathrooms with showers. Her electrical and solar setup are also key: She works remotely full-time as the director of research at a nonprofit.

For My Mom

The van’s name is Annie, after Salem’s mother. “She worked so hard with plans of retiring at 65 and traveling, and she got a cancer diagnosis soon after her 64th birthday and died four months later,” Salem says. “I don’t want to say ‘What if.’”

How a Broken Leg and a Broken Brain Became a Beautiful Book

By Michelle Cohen ’15

In April of my freshman year, I suddenly went from being healthy one day to hospitalized the next. 

Thanks to what doctors called a “perfect storm” of estrogen-based birth control, two genetic abnormalities I didn’t know about (May-Thurner syndrome and antiphospholipid syndrome), and an injury from falling down at Bellydancing Club, I developed a blood clot extending from my left knee to my hip.

Photo by Saverio Truglia

I was transported via ambulance from Community Memorial Hospital to Crouse Hospital in Syracuse. There, I spent five days undergoing three awake surgical procedures to remove the clot, fix my venous deformity, and restore blood flow to the bottom half of my leg — especially my foot, which didn’t have a pulse when I first arrived.

As soon as I was out of the ICU and the danger to my life had passed, I prepared to return to Colgate. I had several new medical concerns — I was now required to take blood thinning medication for the rest of my life to prevent future clots, and because all three procedures took place in an incision at the back of my knee, bending my knee was excruciatingly painful and I couldn’t walk well.

When I returned to campus, I experienced Colgate’s encompassing kindness. My professors didn’t just offer me extensions on papers — they also gave me extra time to get to class and makeup sessions for the work I’d missed.

Dr. Merrill Miller called me daily to dose my blood thinners, and she offered advice and resources to my family back in Atlanta.

Campus police officers drove me up and down the hill. 

“…suddenly, the memories I’d tried to forget overwhelmed me. I could hardly eat, sleep, or do anything other than relive what had happened.”

At an ice cream social where everyone was supposed to only get one scoop, a volunteer saw me limping and gave me three.

As soon as my knee healed, I became determined to put this all behind me. But what I didn’t know is that — as per a 2021 study from the National Blood Clot Association — 80% of surveyed blood clot survivors logged symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, with 77% of respondents reporting moderate, moderately high, or high severity.

Until my junior year, I was able to repress the trauma of the week when my health changed so drastically, but suddenly, the memories I’d tried to forget overwhelmed me. I could hardly eat, sleep, or do anything other than relive what had happened.

It didn’t help that I had been battling obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) since I was diagnosed at age 3. Combined with the more recent trauma, it was now creating an acute state of distress that therapy and medication weren’t fixing. I tried explaining this to others, but people did not understand.

My professors didn’t know whether to give me extensions for daily panic attacks. I was kicked off the board of my favorite student club for “calling my psychiatrist too often” and “not being fun enough.” And aside from my best friend, my peers distanced themselves from me when I was hurting so badly that I began to experience intrusive thoughts telling me that death was the only way to escape this level of pain.

I was confused why people were willing to help when I experienced a physical illness, but when I experienced a flare-up of a mental illness — that was no less life threatening — I felt alone.

I didn’t need people to help me walk to class, but I did need my best friend to sit beside me on the floor of my room in Cushman House and encourage me to eat a bowl of Rice Krispies one by one when I hadn’t had an appetite for days due to panic attacks.

While on my study group in Washington, D.C., I underwent intensive cognitive behavioral therapy and started a new medicine that helped me regain control of my thoughts and my life — but I couldn’t help but feel that there was still something missing.

When I returned to Colgate for my senior year, I became determined to address the problem I experienced: between the stigma of mental illness and a lack of education, people were afraid of things they didn’t understand.

As I was deep in my mental health crisis, I didn’t know how to explain that suicidal ideation is not about wanting to die, it’s about wanting to not live in that kind of pain and not knowing how to feel better. I didn’t know how to explain that I felt afraid of my own thoughts — even though I never wanted or planned to hurt anyone — and had to constantly repeat the mantra “thoughts are thoughts, not threats.” 

So, when it became time to write my thesis for my English major, I wanted to create stories that opened windows into the lives of people living with mental illness. I started with fiction and fantasy, and, after several years, I was willing to share my own journey.

Four years ago, I became the head blogger of No Shame On U, a Chicago-based organization working to destigmatize mental illness and make it more understandable to the general public.

In weekly posts, I write about milestones like the party I had this year to celebrate 10 years clot-free and eight years in trauma recovery, and also how OCD influences everyday activities like going to work, eating in restaurants, and making friends.

This year, I started speaking publicly about my experiences and writing articles for organizations like the National Alliance on Mental Illness and the National Blood Clot Association.

And most importantly, I’ve found a way to combine my lifelong dream of publishing a book with the advocacy that’s become so important to me. My Colgate experience is a turning point in I Eat French Fries With a Fork: OCD, DVT, and learning to love myself, letters and all. While I search for a publisher, I hope that one day, I can bring my work to the place that transformed me so greatly.

As someone who fought so hard to live from both physical and mental illnesses during my time at Colgate, it is one of my deepest desires to return to the place where everything started and offer hope to students embroiled in their own fights.

Cohen runs a Facebook page for OCD advocacy called I Eat French Fries With a Fork. 

Reader Reflection

Entering Colgate in the fall of 2006, I didn’t possess much in the way of a Jewish identity. I knew the blessing to say over the menorah at Hanukkah and I knew the Four Questions for Passover, but that was about the extent of my knowledge. One of the first weeks at school, two of my suitemates in Andrews were going to the Saperstein Center for a Shabbat dinner and asked if I wanted to join. I figured if nothing else, it would be a nice break from a dinner at Frank so I tagged along. I sat through my first ever Friday night service, had some home cooked food, mingled with a few upperclassmen I hadn’t met before, and met Rabbi Dave Levy, who proceeded to change the trajectory of my entire life. From that dinner on, I was hooked. I started attending more events at “The Sap,” went on the Colgate Birthright trip in May 2007, started studying Hebrew with Anat Glick in the fall of 2007, declared a Jewish studies minor in 2008, and then moved to Israel after I graduated in 2010.  12 years later, I am married to an Israeli, and I am an Israeli citizen myself (and so are our two children, one of whom was born while we were living in Tel Aviv). We regularly visit Israel from our current home in Chicago and plan to make a permanent move back to Israel soon.  

— Rebecca Koren ’10