Inaugural Billy Collins ‘63 Scholarship Propels Holy Cross Students to Law School, Graduate Opportunities

Two students, a woman and man posing for a picture

The scholarship will be awarded annually to students committed to majoring in classics

Alec Levesque '22 measures the impact of the Billy Collins '63 Scholarship for Studies in Classics as the difference in the scale of a dream.

One of the first two recipients of the scholarship, Levesque, an aspiring law student, had just finished his law school applications when he received the news he'd won the scholarship in January: "My parents and I were talking about making sure that whatever law school I go to is a smart decision financially. What the scholarship will allow me to do is to expand the range of the law schools I’m considering and to have more flexibility in my choice."

The second recipient of the Collins Scholarship is Kendall Swanson '22, who feels much the same. She'll spend next year serving in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps as a community engagement coordinator for an organization that provides affordable housing to the homeless. 

"I'm taking that time to consider what I want to do next and just find myself, find an identity outside of being a student," Swanson says. "I'd always considered going to graduate school, but it always seemed a little out of reach for me in terms of finances and practicality. But this scholarship has opened my eyes to the fact that not only can I potentially go to grad school, but also that I could study classics at the graduate level. I mean, if people like Billy Collins think that it’s relevant, then clearly it’s an important thing to study in greater depth."

The Billy Collins '63 Scholarship for Studies in Classics will be awarded annually to current students committed to majoring in classics who also show financial need. The scholarship is the result of a $250,000 gift in honor of the bestselling, two-time United States poet laureate and graduate of the class of 1963. The scholarship includes the initial gift of $250,000, as well as a match through the College's Hope + Access Campaign for Financial Aid, bringing the total amount to $500,000 to establish the scholarship endowment. 

Collins, who taught for several decades in the English department at Lehman College (City University of New York), says his study of the classics at Holy Cross provided him with a solid foundation for his career as a teacher and a poet. "When I’m composing poems, the classical languages are among the candles that light up my page," he says. Collins also says he was delighted to learn that the inaugural recipients of the scholarships had been chosen: "When I heard the names Alec Levesque and Kendall Swanson, the concept of the scholarship suddenly became real. I look forward to congratulating both of them in person one day. For now, their commitment to studies in the classics makes me like them already. I wish them well and hope that their scholarships assist them in completing their work at Holy Cross. Who knows — it might inspire them to continue on to graduate studies, which might even lead to a career in this important and distinguished field? No pressure, of course!"

The inaugural Collins Scholars are keeping their options open, anticipating that the study of the classics gives them an edge in many potential careers.

"The thing that has always compelled me the most about the classics has been the overall art and usage of the language," Levesque says. "Really, there is no better place to look than to the classics for understanding the proper use of language and how to best orient yourself for an audience — especially in the delivery of a legal case. We have the classics to thank for the foundation of our legal system."

Aaron Seider, associate professor and chair of the classics department, echoed Swanson and Levesque: "The opportunity to teach classics and to think about it with my students, well, it's really an exercise in imagination — imagining ourselves and imagining the ancient world. I think it's fascinating both to look back to antiquity and to think about problems that are still with us today. And to think of how we’re constructing the past: What kind of value are we giving it today? What kind of questions are we asking when we study it? And what’s wonderful is that there’s always room for new voices and new questions to be coming into these conversations."

Where other colleges and universities are having to make hard decisions about the future of the humanities, Holy Cross' classics department operates from a position of strength. It is one of the largest and most active undergraduate classics departments in the country because of the College's investment and gifts like that of Collins, Seider says. "So we want to think about how we can be a transformative classics department, to rethink what it is that we are studying — and how we can support our students, offer them pathways to succeed and encourage them to think in their own voices," he says.

The endowed scholarship will provide funds in perpetuity, ensuring that future students benefit from valuable scholarship assistance, and are able to pursue their passion for the study of classics, regardless of their background and financial means.

"I was pleased to create this endowment at Holy Cross because its classics program is the most spirited and highly regarded of any such program at a liberal arts college in the United States," Collins says.

Swanson and Levesque also confessed their pleasure at being able to name-drop Collins on law and grad school applications. Lauded "the most popular poet in America" by The New York Times, which has also characterized his poetry readings as the "literary equivalent of Beatlemania," Collins is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a New York Public Library "Literary Lion" and a vice president of the Poetry Society of America. His honors and awards include fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. His poetry has been translated into more than a dozen languages.

"I didn't realize initially that this was the first year of this scholarship," Swanson says. "Then I was told I was an inaugural Billy Collins Scholar. That was really exciting. It's cool to be experiencing history in this way, to actually be a part of it."

"My mom was texting me, 'This is huge. You’ve gotta put this on your law applications,'" Levesque says. "The timing couldn't have been better."

Written by Marybeth Reilly-McGreen ’89 for the Spring 2022 issue of Holy Cross Magazine.

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