When Amherst College was founded in the early 19th century, part of its raison d’être (aside from being a protest against Harvard’s Unitarianism) was to educate young men to go out into the world and preach the gospel. The College seal illustrates this philosophy: “Terras Irradient” – “let them enlighten the lands.” However, by the end of the century graduates’ interests had evolved to something in addition to religious instruction, or something entirely different. Graduates of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were still going into the world as missionaries, but by then the work often meant starting schools or becoming medical missionaries. Other alumni were writers, doctors, teachers, publishers, ambassadors, “industrial barons,” and in many other professions far removed from those of the first Amherst graduates.
For Laurens Hickok Seelye, Class of 1911, “Terras Irradient” meant that he would teach philosophy at the American University of Beirut (AUB, known at the time as the Syrian Protestant College), where he moved in 1919 with his indefatigable wife Kate Chambers Seelye, daughter of missionaries William and Cornelia Chambers. For Kate the move was a return home after her college years in the U.S. (Kate was born and raised in Turkey but left to attend Bryn Mawr and Columbia). For Laurens the Middle East was something entirely new, and he threw himself into its culture unreservedly. Professor Seelye probably stood out everywhere he went for his height, his humor, and his intense intellect. And he loved AUB. He loved it for its diversity, tolerance, and collegiality. In a memorable letter to an old friend, he described both himself and the college:
In addition to testing boundaries and teaching philosophy, Laurens acted as the director of West Hall, which was and still is the student campus center. In that position, he came to know more students than he would otherwise have known. After he had settled in at AUB, Laurens noticed a need for something else – financial assistance for ambitious young Armenian refugees to continue their education beyond what the Near East Relief provided. This organization had established orphanages to help with Armenian refugees who had flooded into the area during and after World War I. They provided a basic education to about age 16, at which time the boys left the orphanages to fend for themselves. Because of Kate’s personal connection with the Armenian community and Laurens’ work at the college, several of these boys came to the Seelyes to ask for help. Laurens decided to do what he could as a personal project, outside of his work at AUB.
In a letter to Clarence Young, an uncle, Laurens described the situation and his plan to help. He said that there was no provision to train the Armenian refugees beyond a trade-school education, no resources to train teachers, doctors, dentists, pastors, and other professionals. “I am right up against young life determined to win out and get an education if given half a chance,” Laurens wrote to Clarence. The world “can do nothing in the future without an educated and large-minded minority scattered through the races and nations who are willing to stake their lives and reputations on the practice of Good Will.” Would his uncle share his plea with churches and schools and clubs at home and ask if they might raise funds to support some of these boys?
The plan worked. Laurens and his donors were able to provide funds for a long list of boys to continue their educations. The boys were mostly Armenians, but there were also boys of other backgrounds.
In 1923 a few of these boys met with Laurens and came away with the idea of forming an Armenian Students Cooperative Association. The club started with the goal of finding an affordable living space that a handful of students could share, splitting the cost of food, rent, and a cook (the latter after one of the boys inadvertently fried up his tie with some eggplants). The club was sufficiently popular that it had to expand to two clubs and two houses. A few of its members weren’t even Armenians, which pleased Laurens because it realized his goal of having the students regard themselves as “humans first, Armenians second,” by which he meant that he wanted his students to recognize their common humanity, and to work to improve conditions for all.
Club members lived, worked, and played together. Click below to enlarge the photographs and view them as a gallery.
The club also issued annual reports, three of which (1923-24; 1924-25; and 1926-27) are in the collection. The reports demonstrate the democratic philosophy they practiced:
The Seelyes were friends with several of these students for decades; in fact, there are letters in the collection from the club’s founder, Dicran Berberian, that date from the 1960s. The existence of the club is a testament to the industry of the students, but also to Laurens’ teaching. In his own way, he had realized Amherst’s motto, “Terras Irradiant.”
The material illustrated here is from the Williams-Chambers-Seelye-Blaisdell Family Papers in the Archives and Special Collections. Contact the department for more details.