This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Eva Travers, 77, who built the Department of Educational Studies at Swarthmore College and was a longtime advocate for educational equity and justice in Philadelphia and elsewhere, died Sunday in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, where she had a home.
She was found in a pond in which she had swum regularly for decades.
Mrs. Travers taught at Swarthmore from 1975 until her retirement in 2006 and was known for her unflagging devotion to her students and to the mission of improving urban education. She was the first educational studies professor to receive tenure at Swarthmore, a liberal arts college.
In 1977, when she took over the department, the country was in the middle of a recession and the Swarthmore board of managers was considering dropping the program, through which students could get their teaching certifications. She was instrumental in ensuring its survival and growth, said Lisa Smulyan, the Henry C. and Charlotte Turner professor of educational studies and the department’s current co-chair.
“She let the students and the alums, in some way, lead the charge, but she was clearly a force behind it,” she said. “She was the backbone of that program.”
Other students besides aspiring teachers take courses in the department, which puts a focus on the educational inequity that is embedded in the U.S. school system. What they learn proves eye-opening to many, Smulyan said.
“The Intro to Ed course that she created, students would take that course and say, ‘how come nobody ever told me this?'” Smulyan said. “They hadn’t stepped back to examine an institution they were so embedded in.”
The course, she said, “revealed to them ways they had been shaped by [the education system] and the ways it perpetuated so many inequities. Even if they were on the receiving end of the inequities, they never understood the whole institutional process going on behind it.”
But beyond that, Smulyan said, Mrs. Travers “would do anything for a student. Students who needed housing in the summer stayed at her house. If they needed money to get a train home, she would give them the money with the expectation it was paid back, but maybe it was and maybe it wasn’t. When she looked at somebody with that penetrating gaze, you knew you had her full attention, and she would do anything she could to help you succeed.”
Smulyan said Mrs. Travers also was the hardest worker she knew. “I never saw anybody work the hours she did, and it was not because she was inefficient. She left no stone unturned and spent so much time and energy preparing for class.”
After her death, former students took to a Facebook page for Swarthmore Education Alumni/ae to pay tribute.
“Eva was so important to sparking my interest in education and social inequality, and also a wonderful mentor and support,” said one.
“I loved her Urban Education class. It sparked my passion for equity in education!” wrote another.
Several said her influence led them to become teachers or otherwise become involved in education.
“Like so many others, taking Intro to Ed and Urban Education with Eva inspired me to major in Ed Studies, and eventually pursue a career in education,” one student wrote. “Eva was my advisor when I first came to Swarthmore in 1984. She was one of my favorite professors. What an incredible person – kind, passionate, encouraging, and incredibly smart. She is one of the main reasons I went to graduate school and decided to become a teacher. She helped me in so many ways.”
Swarthmore president Valerie Smith sent a statement to the college community saying Mrs. Travers “is remembered for her warm, supportive, and gracious spirit, as well as for her steadfast support of students, teachers, and teacher-preparation programs, such as those at Swarthmore and other liberal arts colleges.”
In the statement, colleagues offered their own remembrances. Retired professor of English literature Philip Weinstein, her good friend, said, “Her dignity, articulateness, commitment to her field, and, above all, her unfailing grace — eventually made educational studies inseparable from Swarthmore College’s identity. Her contribution to the College, like all of Eva’s gifts, was so quietly unassuming that only later, looking back, would you recognize its magnitude. And her irreplaceability.”
Although educational studies courses had persisted through most of the college’s history, it wasn’t until 1969 that a change in Pennsylvania law allowed liberal arts schools to offer teaching certifications, which had been the domain of teacher-training institutions until then. The statement noted that the college had considered dropping the program in the 1970s, even though Swarthmore had been founded, in part, to train Quaker teachers.
Some people also thought that teacher training was too “vocational” for the liberal arts school, Mrs. Travers was quoted as saying in a student publication at the time.
In her approach to the subject, she showed otherwise.
“In pursuing her interests in urban education and educational policy, Eva employed the perspectives of sociology, anthropology, political science, economics, and history to examine the challenges involved in creating and maintaining equitable, democratic, and multicultural educational practices and policies,” Swarthmore’s statement went on to say. “Her widely influential Introduction to Education course, which she developed and taught for almost 30 years, provided an opportunity for about one-third of all Swarthmore undergraduates each year to critically reflect on and analyze the educational structures and processes that have played a central role in their lives.”
Mrs. Travers also served as associate dean and then acting dean of the college between 1988 and 1992, and in 1999 received an award from the Lindback Foundation for outstanding teaching.
The daughter of Hungarian refugees, she graduated from Connecticut College with a bachelor of arts degree in American history before attending Harvard. In the early 1990s, she traveled to Hungary during the transition to a democratic government to do field research on the challenges for civic education and the teaching of history, Smulyan said.
Educational researcher Betsey Useem said she first met Mrs. Travers when they were both students at Harvard, getting master’s degrees to teach history, which they did for a year. Both returned to Cambridge for their doctorates, and Mrs. Travers earned hers from Harvard Graduate School of Education in 1973.
“What really came through was her commitment to her students and to preparing teachers very well and very thoroughly, to give them experience in urban schools,” Useem said. Improving public education in Philadelphia “was a lifelong commitment.” She encouraged her students to consider working in cities and strove to “get them good jobs and good placements. Her letters of recommendation were legendary.”
As part of her commitment to Philadelphia school reform, she was an editorial adviser and sometime contributor to the Notebook between 2003 and 2006, when she retired from Swarthmore and moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts. She also provided the Notebook with a steady stream of college interns whom she had mentored on issues of education policy.
As an editorial contributor, she wrote several articles, all of which dealt in some way with inequity. In 2003, after the adoption of the federal No Child Left Behind law led to a significant expansion of standardized testing, Mrs. Travers played a lead role in the Notebook‘s work on a package of articles that explained testing policies and varieties of tests to readers, including a thoughtful presentation of the criticisms that many education experts were raising about the limitations and dangers of the testing.
Other subjects she tackled included why the city had trouble keeping the best teachers and educators’ concerns about a new standardized curriculum written by a test-prep company. In 2004, the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation decision, she wrote about how Philadelphia schools were still segregated, despite a decades-old court case.
Her involvement at the Notebook came right after the state seized control of the financially and academically struggling school system and turned over several of its schools to private operators, including Edison Schools Inc. In addition to her articles in the Notebook, she worked with Useem and others on a project for the organization Research for Action to assess the impact of such privatization in the early days of the state takeover.
She was also a consistent donor and supporter of the Notebook after her retirement.
“I could see from her contributions to the Notebook why Eva was so admired as a teacher,” said former Notebook editor and publisher Paul Socolar. “She consistently approached the work with a lot of warmth, passion, and persistence. She was very attentive to explaining things clearly and accurately – if there was any confusion, she would thoughtfully address questions and patiently find ways to clarify. She was a tremendous asset to the Notebook team and to me.”
She is survived by her husband, Jeff Travers; children, Emily Travers Carroll (Mark) and Nick Travers; grandchildren, Jackson and Gabriella; and sisters, Judith Dickson and Barbara Wolkowicz.
Swarthmore is planning a memorial service, but details are not yet finalized.
Editor’s Note: Notebook contributing editor Dale Mezzacappa is a visiting instructor in the Department of English Literature at Swarthmore.