Honoring Esther Rowland

Two alumnae spearhead a scholarship fund to salute a campus advisor who helped them pursue careers in medical health

By Mervyn Kaufman

It began with a visit by two members of the Class of 1980, doctors Annabelle Santos Volgman and Elena Cudkowicz-Kamel. In February 2011, these Chicagoans were in New York to attend the Metropolitan Opera. While in the city, they visited Barnard, where neither had been for decades. Volgman is professor of medicine at Chicago’s Rush University and medical director of the Rush Heart Center for Women, and Cudkowicz-Kamel is associate professor of clinical obstetrics at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. They are old friends as well as classmates, and that visit to Barnard was what fueled their effort to establish a scholarship honoring Esther Rowland. As associate dean of studies and preprofessional advisor from 1973 until her retirement in 1995, Rowland counseled and nurtured some 300 students (mostly premed, some prelaw) about their studies, graduate-school applications, and careers.

“That day,” recalls Cudkowicz-Kamel, “Annabelle and I looked at each other and said, ‘Esther Rowland really shaped all our careers. Think of the amazing Barnard women who went into health care.’ Esther was really the impetus. We felt how fortunate we’d been.”

The founding duo consulted Barnard’s development office to discuss ways to honor Rowland, and learned that they needed to raise at least $100,000 to establish an endowed scholarship fund. With help from development-office staff, they began reaching out to other alumnae who also had been Rowland’s advisees. In a little over a year, they had raised more than the required minimum—quite an accomplishment. Only then did they inform Rowland, who called their efforts “an honor I never expected. This happens to Bud all the time but never to me.” Bud is her husband, Lewis Rowland, now also retired, who chaired Columbia’s neurology department for 25 years. He has always been an outspoken champion of his wife’s talents and skills.

Esther Rowland “was inspirational,” Volgman recalls. “She said it was not always a man’s world out there—we could do whatever we wanted—and encouraged me to pursue my dreams.” In describing her relationship with Rowland, Cudkowicz-Kamel remembers, “She took an interest in you not only as a med student, but also personally. She counseled you how to prepare for interviews and how to present yourself. She was like a think-tank of knowledge about the whole process of applying.”

“Esther was the first person to advocate for me when it was time to reach for what I wanted to do,” says Aliya Hasan ’94, a physician in Denver. “She was really my first mentor. I didn’t even know what a mentor was at that point. She took a genuine interest; I felt like I was her only advisee.”

Athena Kaporis ’90, a dermatologist in Mount Kisco and Scarsdale, N.Y., recalls that she had already begun course work at NYU’s medical school, “when one of the deans said, ‘When you see Dean Rowland at Barnard, make sure you thank her. She put in a nice call for you, and it helped us—made our job easier. We get thousands of applications.’ It was really a big deal that she helped me get into NYU, because that led to bigger and better things.”

Describing her own career, Rowland recalls, “I was born in the ’20s; I was a housewife in the ’50s, with a husband, three kids, and an almost-PhD in political science. In 1967, when my husband got the job as chairman of neurology at the University of Pennsylvania, the family moved from New York to Philadelphia. In 1970, I was invited, along with two other wives of department chairs in the medical school, to talk to the ‘Mrs. Club,’ the wives of the medical students, on the subject of what it’s like to be a doctor’s wife. I was flattered to be asked to speak, but only when I sat down to write my talk did I realize that the club and the subject were fast becoming anachronisms.

“The first speaker was Elaine, wife of the chair of OB/GYN and an MD/PhD herself. She told the group to get a stove with a special hotplate upon which you can reheat the doctor’s dinner, because he will undoubtedly arrive home too late to eat with the kids. The second speaker, also an MD, was Jane, wife of the chair of biochemistry, who described her skills as packer, mover, home-seller, home-buyer, school-finder and lots more for the many transitions the husband had made and would continue to make.

“I took my turn at the podium and said, ‘What kind of topic is this? Why does my being married to a doctor matter? I am who I am.’ I then proceeded to tell them who I was, including my experience as a college instructor [first at New York’s City College, then at Mount Holyoke, and finally at Drexel]. I also told them about the economic exigencies of the post–World War II economy that supposedly required middle-class women to stay at home. In the end, the medical students’ wives seemed to be more interested in the stove and in a cookbook they were putting together than in what I was saying.

“But the faculty advisor to the club, a woman doctor, was so impressed that she recommended me for the job as premed advisor to Penn’s undergraduates. When the dean asked me to apply for the job, I started to answer that I knew nothing about premed advising, but quickly corrected my statement by telling him all the things about myself that qualified me for the post. I got the job. All in all, I was lucky to have been in the right place at the right time.”

The Rowlands had spent six years at Penn when Lewis Rowland was offered a similar chairmanship at Columbia. “This was a difficult decision to make,” Esther Rowland recalls. “Penn was a lovely place, but Bud’s roots were really Columbia.” He became chair of the neurology department, remaining for 27 years until his retirement in 2000. In negotiating his new position, however, Lewis Rowland insisted that he couldn’t take the job unless an attractive position could be offered to his wife. An opening did occur, at Barnard, where she spent 22 years.

To honor her service, Esther Rowland was the featured guest at a reception in Barnard Hall on November 10, 2014. Old friends, family members, former colleagues, alumnae, and scholarship donors, along with Dean of Studies Natalie Friedman, poured into the Sulzberger Parlor to honor her. “What a wonderful recognition of Esther’s accomplishments,” said Friedman, noting, “Administrators so often work behind the scenes.” Sharing the spotlight with Rowland that night was a Barnard student, Therese Kitchuk ’16, the first Esther Rowland Scholarship recipient.

Looking back, Mary Ann LoFrumento ’77, medical director of the Newborn Nursery at Morristown (N.J.) Medical Center, recalls, “At one point I became depressed that maybe this was not the course I should follow. I remember telling Rowland I didn’t think I wanted to become a doctor. She insisted that I was a good candidate and got me back to applying to medical school. If it wasn’t for Esther, I wouldn’t have stayed. She wouldn’t let me quit. Helping me, she helped me help other people. She had an incredible influence on the women who graduated from Barnard for a very long time.”

To make a secure gift honoring Esther Rowland, visit barnard.edu/gift. Fill in the top of the page, scroll down to “Designations,” and type “Rowland Fund” in the box beside “Restricted Gifts.” Go to the next page to complete your gift. 

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