Throughout this academic year, Rider has been celebrating the 50th year of its School of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and while this golden anniversary has been carefully plotted with a series of festive and scholastic events to mark the occasion, Commencement 2012 will also witness a rather chance milestone that happens to reflect the family aspect of the event.
When Jessica Burgh ’12 receives her bachelor’s degree in Liberal Studies on May 10, at the University’s Graduate and College of Continuing Studies Commencement, she will join her father, Dr. Richard Burgh ’68, as a second-generation Rider graduate. It is a proud, though not necessarily rare, distinction.
It is believed, however, that Jessica will become the first child of a Rider graduate who also happens to be a faculty member to earn a degree from the institution. Richard, a professor of Philosophy, returned to Rider in 1975, and is one of four School of Liberal Arts and Sciences alumni who are now part of the SLAS faculty.
When Jessica graduated from Morristown (N.J.) High School in 2002, the chances of it all seemed remote. She originally studied Psychology at Temple University, attracted by the idea of a large, urban university, but soon came to regret her choice.
“I should’ve taken some time off after high school. A lot of people advised me to do that while I figured out my next step,” explained Jessica, who would allow herself to dream of being a chef in a busy city restaurant, yet felt that college was simply the more practical choice. “Not going to college never really crossed my mind.”
After two years in North Philadelphia, Jessica transferred to Rider in 2005, hopeful that a change of scenery would help.
“My father had worked here my entire life, and I’d been on campus with him many times,” Jessica recalled of making the move to Lawrenceville. “It was a natural move, and very comfortable.”
As relaxed as she felt with her new school, Jessica still felt the increasing lure of the restaurant business, in which she had worked since the age of 16. In pursuit of her passion, Jessica withdrew from Rider after a year and enrolled in the culinary arts program at the Art Institute of Philadelphia.
To Richard, it was rewarding to see his daughter pursue her dream, though he preferred that she first weave herself a tighter safety net.
“I wanted to see her go where she’d be happy,” said Richard, whose own father, an attorney, wanted to see his son pursue law school – something he very nearly did before choosing to attend graduate school for philosophy. “I just wanted her to get a B.A. first.”
After earning an associate degree, Jessica threw herself into the restaurant scene, working in kitchens at such high-end Philadelphia eateries as Alma de Cuba and La Castagne, both located in the city’s tony Rittenhouse Square neighborhood.
The work was hard, and the hours, long. Jessica knew this, but to a young, aspiring chef, it was simply the price she had to pay. Looking further down the road, however, changed her perspective a bit.
“It wasn’t the life I wanted when I had a family,” Jessica said, envisioning the late evening hours and constant weekends she would be away from home. “I realized I didn’t want a career in the industry.”
A 2009 dinner-table conversation at the Burgh’s Yardley, Pa., home allowed Richard to reintroduce the idea of Rider to Jessica, who admitted she was “miserable.”
“I said, ‘Why don’t you go back, very part-time?” Richard recalled, adding that his daughter was receptive.
“At first, I thought maybe I’d look at online schools, but my dad said to talk to CCS,” said Jessica, who soon consulted with Karen Crowell, assistant dean of the College of Continuing Studies – a haven for adults and nontraditional students at Rider returning to school after an absence. “I found I could take one night class and one online. I enrolled the next day.”
After her first two courses, Jessica decided to “bite the bullet,” and dive into full-time studies. With it came experiences normally reserved for traditional undergraduates, such as the chance to study abroad for a year in Israel.
“I had Middle Eastern history, religion, and Jewish and Islamic studies classes, as well as some politics classes,” she explained. “As a Liberal Studies major, it all fits into my degree.”
Soon to hold the diploma she always wanted, however unsure her path may have seemed, Jessica is excited for what lies ahead. She is exploring ways to use her bachelor’s degree in a culinary context – “I still have a passion for food and cooking,” she conceded – but may first return to Israel, where she not only fell in love with the ancient land, but with one of its residents.
“My boyfriend is there, too,” she said.
Though Jessica originally sought the big-school experience, what turned out to be the best fit was the one where personal connections were paramount.
“It’s been great” she said, “going to school where my adviser knows my name and face.”
Jessica’s days on campus may be at an end, but that connection will continue. At Rider, alumni are just another type of family – especially for Richard and Jessica Burgh.