Valerie Bell ’77, the first black student and first woman to be voted senior-class president at Princeton, recalls the sense of pride she felt when she led her classmates through FitzRandolph Gate at Commencement.
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For the record
The transcript has been updated to clarify that Bell was the first woman elected senior-class president at Princeton. Two women had previously served as class presidents: Abby Rubenfeld ’75, freshman year; and Eva Lam ’76, sophomore year.
Brett Tomlinson: Welcome to the fourth season of PAW Tracks, our oral-history podcast. I’m Brett Tomlinson, the digital editor for the Princeton Alumni Weekly. We recorded interviews at Reunions last June and will be releasing excerpts throughout the new publication year.
We begin with Valerie Bell ’77, who came to Princeton from Roosevelt, Long Island. She’d been the first African American student at her Catholic high school, and at Princeton, she found a welcoming community among black students. But Bell wanted to branch out and be a leader in the larger undergraduate community.
Valerie Bell: So, I got involved in student government, was elected to the UGA, which was the Undergraduate Assembly, at the time, and met a whole group of young people who were involved in that world. And so, my time here was really punctuated by balancing all those things. You know, being a leader and an activist in the student-of-color community, and sort of taking on the projects board, the Honor Committee, doing those kinds of things with the majority group students. And you know, I was elected vice president of my class for sophomore year, and was in the UGA, and then it became the USG. And so, I was very, very active on campus. And my big challenge was to keep those A’s going, at the same time I was doing all of these other things.
And so, I had a very rich experience here, particularly as a woman. Sort of breaking ground on some things, because it was — a lot of firsts. You know, a lot of things that you got involved in where you’re the first person to do this, or you’re the first person to do that.
When I decided that I was going to run for senior class president, there was some real discussion around this, because there were some alumni who felt that it was way too early to have a female, a person of color. And one person said — and Catholic. I happen to be Catholic. He said I was a trifecta of disaster, a black Catholic woman. Take this very traditional role, and on Commencement day, lead the class through the FitzRandolph Gates.
I think for me, when somebody says to me, “You can’t,” or, “I won’t let you,” my inclination always is to say, “I can, and get out of my way.” Because I felt I had the skill sets. I felt very capable and competent. I had the experience. It wasn’t like I was a newcomer to all of this — you know, sometimes there is that one person who is, by senior year says, “I’m going to do x!” You know, they’ve never been involved before, but they’re going to. I was consistently involved. And that’s how I essentially sold myself to my class. I said, “Hey, guys, you know me.” And it was really mostly guys. [laughs] “Guys, you know me. And I haven’t let you down yet. And so, I really want to you to support me.”
My theme when I was running for senior class president was “unity growing from our diversity.” That was that we are all members of the Class of ’77, and we bring — each of us brings something different, but together, we are the inimitable Class of 1977. That’s who — we are comprised of all these different components. And so, my challenge at Princeton, throughout the time, was to be everything I wanted to be. To be the senior class president, but yet to be the African American student leader, and not to have either group feel like, “But you’re not being faithful to us or what it is we’re doing.”
I did a door-to-door campaign. I visited a thousand classmates. And there were people who said to me, “I have to be really candid with you. It’s not time for a woman,” or, “It’s not time for a person of color,” or, “It’s not time for both.” But I never did feel in any way dissuaded from pursuing the course that I was very adamant about pursuing. I was determined to not have my experience tainted, tarnished, or just in any — for there to be any detractions from it because other people felt like, oh, well, she shouldn’t do this, or couldn’t do this.
The experience for me, on all of those experiences, and my experiences here in general really inspired me to know that you determine your course. You discover who you are. You define how you’re going to pursue whatever goals and objectives. You do that. And others are going to come, and try to derail you. But you just — you can’t let them. And to the extent that you have whatever power you have, you just keep moving, and pushing along the trajectory that you’ve determined for yourself.
BT: Bell won the election by a healthy margin. There wasn’t much fanfare in The Daily Princetonian, but The New York Times took note, publishing a paragraph about the first black student and first woman to be voted Princeton senior-class president. And a year later, at Commencement, Bell proudly led the Class of 1977’s procession through FitzRandolph Gate.
VB: It was an extraordinary feeling. And it was a very interesting thing, because the African American students said, “We’re walking behind her.” And a large group of African American students walked in single file behind me, so that we could all be situated on the same side of the aisle.
But sort of being there in the front of the whole crowd, and seeing the parents, particularly of students of color, but other parents, other progressive parents, who were just cheering and clapping. It was a moment I’ll never forget.
But what I should note to you is that it gave me a great deal of pride in my class, the Class of 1977, because I felt that this was a group that had courageously determined that they were going to see a change insofar as they were supporting the candidate they thought was the best candidate.
That whole experience said so much to me about the people with whom I had been educated. And it wasn’t so much about me as it was about their support of me, as who they felt was the best candidate, and their support of me as the leader that they chose for themselves. And so, I am eternally grateful to the Class of 1977, because I think it was an extraordinary thing to do, at the time. It’s hard to believe it today, but back then, that was — wow, this is a different change for Princeton.
That confirmed my belief that, in my life, I can always try to be a bridge-maker. And that has been my life’s journey. You know, being that bridge-builder in community, in the work that I do, in the efforts that I undertake. And Princeton gave me that. It helped me to see, it is possible. And with the skills that you have gained from being in this institution, you now have all the tools you need to go out and make the change that you want to see in the world.
BT: Our thanks to Valerie Bell for sharing her story. Brett Tomlinson produced this episode. The music is licensed from FirstCom Music.