Yesterday a friend posted a “How Millennial Are You?” status on her Facebook page, and I couldn’t resist playing along. Yep, I scored a big fat goose egg. Clearly, I’m not hip with the times, and I’m mostly O.K. with that. I do consider myself relatable enough, to the extent that my kids and husband know I’m more likely to answer a text than a phone call, typically because I’m often in settings where I can’t always address the latter as easily or discreetly as the former.
Truth be told, I’ve always been better in writing, and I’ll confess that I’ve let that confidence on top of convenience win out more often than not, particularly when it comes to my day-to-day interactions. Take interviews, for example. In my younger, less-multitasked days, I would contact a source, set up an appointment and meet them on their turf, letting the interview set the course for the story, which sometimes turned into stories by virtue of that approach. I’m not quite sure when, where and why I turned the tide from in-person to email, but I did, secure in the “fact” that I didn’t have the time to do otherwise.
Through the years, I’ve written a lot of solid stories based on little more than a source’s emailed responses to five questions I’ve honed to get to the heart of any scientific news story. It’s a proven fallback that works, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s successful.
Most problems are best fixed at the source — or in this case, by the source: Ersen Arseven ’74, who earned his Ph.D. in statistics at Texas A&M, is a 2007 inductee into the College of Science’s Academy of Distinguished Former Students and is founder and co-chair of the Statistics Former Student Network. I first “met” Ersen during my initial years in Texas A&M Science Communications, when in 2001 he established a permanent supporting endowment for Texas A&M’s annual Women In Science and Engineering (WISE) Conference in memory of his wife, Susan M. Arseven ’75, whose brilliant career and life were cut short by breast cancer in 2000 at the age of 59. In the decades since, I’ve worked with him to publicize additional gifts in Susan’s name and to benefit a variety of causes educational and honorific. Somewhere along the way, I became fortunate enough to get to know him not only as a distinguished former student and donor, but also as a true friend.
Perhaps there’s something to this generational stuff, because as much as my Generation X self defers to email, Ersen’s Silent Generation is anything but (yet another reason we get along so well), particularly when it comes to having a telephone in hand versus a keyboard at one’s fingertips. So when I recently emailed him to ask a couple follow-up questions to help my Texas A&M Foundation colleague Case Rhome pin down some last-minute details regarding a video project I’d semi-coerced both of them into doing, it came as no surprise when his response was that he would call me.
One day and nearly an hour-long phone conversation later, I had my answers and oh, so much more. Lesson learned, my dear friend: It’s always worth the time to make the time, because you never know what or who you might have missed otherwise.
Now, for the rest of that story, as told through a compilation of emails (my method of choice) sent to Case:
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Good morning, Case! I got a chance to speak with Ersen Arseven yesterday concerning your follow-up questions related to the “Why I Give” segment. Turns out Ersen and Susan met much earlier than their time at Texas A&M: October 31, 1967, at a nurses’ Halloween party in Philadelphia, in fact. He was a grad student at the University of Pennsylvania, and she was working at the Penn library, in charge of automating their circulation system. Ersen’s friend at Columbia was dating her best friend, and that’s how he got invited. Seems he and his friend arrived late, at which point most of the nurses were already picked up! He said prior to that, he used to run into her from time to time at the City Science Center (computer facility at Penn) but that they didn’t truly meet/interact until that party.
Ersen came to Texas A&M in the fall of 1969 as a Ph.D. student in economics, later switching to statistics. Susan remained behind in Philadelphia. On July 18, 1970, they got married in Miami in her parents’ house. A few days later, they flew to Texas and embarked on their future in Aggieland — Ersen as a full-time student and Susan as an assistant professor and head of the data processing center. “Six months in College Station did me in, according to Susan, so I asked for her hand!” Ersen said. He expounded on his logic in part as follows: “There were 2,000 women, 1,800 of whom were already spoken for as wives or girlfriends of either professors or other students. So you had 14,000 men competing for 200 women. You do the math!”
But back to that fateful 1967 Halloween party, as Ersen describes it: “I was sitting; she was walking around. She had a cigarette in her hand, but you could tell she wasn’t a smoker because the way she was holding it was wrong. She said hi; I said hi. Then she sat down next to me on the couch. We had drinks, this and that, conversation about ‘what do you do?’ ‘what do you do?’ etc.
“What really happened was, it was 11 p.m., and I said, ‘I have to go.’ She said, ‘I have to go, too.’ We were headed in different directions. She had a car, but my vehicle was my feet. She left first, and I started walking. She saw me and offered me a ride, but I told her I lived in the opposite direction. ‘If you want, I can drop you,’ she said, and she did. As we were getting closer to where I lived, I started to worry, because I knew I had nothing to offer her. So I said, ‘I can invite you upstairs for coffee, but I have no milk and it’s instant coffee.’ ‘Maybe next time,’ she said. So next time, I took her out to a little place on the river. I spent lots of my money that night — so much that I had to fast on bread and water for a long time!”
Incidentally, he told me later in our conversation that his scholarship was a source of tension between he and Susan in their early days as a couple — tension in the sense that he always had to study for fear of losing his scholarship.
“I was very focused on my work, and that created a lot of friction,” he said. “The fear of not studying enough was real.”
That scholarship which enabled Ersen to study abroad in the United States was provided by the Turkish government, and there were rather strict terms, including repayment in full if you changed your disciplinary focus, which he eventually did from economics to statistics during his time at Texas A&M. As a result, he and Susan ended up on the hook for roughly $90,000, which definitely would be a source of friction for any budding relationship. Thanks to inflation in Turkey that resulted in the U.S. dollar being worth 10 and 15 times what the Turkish lira was at that time, they quickly made up the difference, armed with Susan’s assistant professor paycheck and Ersen’s $350 monthly grad student stipend from Texas A&M Statistics.
“When I finished my degree, we had paid the debt,” he said. “Sometimes, inflation helps!”
I think that’s a huge reason he’s so passionate about helping current and future Texas A&M students. He knows firsthand and also acutely remembers being worried about funding in both the short and long term and wants to help alleviate that pressure.
“People don’t always understand that when you have this financial burden and you don’t know where the money will come from next semester, it is a huge stress,” he said. “That has always been in my DNA.”
While Ersen may have begun his stateside educational journey at Penn, he definitely bleeds more maroon than the traditional and biologically appropriate Quaker red and blue. He minces few words in expressing his admiration for Texas A&M then and now, but even more so during the formative decades in between from which he says we could all learn.
“I believe Texas A&M is an example worth emulating for American society in its transition from a small, all-white, largely conservative school to one of the country’s largest Research 1 universities that has really opened up and embraced all cultures without sacrificing its values and integrity,” he said. “It truly is a role model for our nation and world.”
Interestingly enough, Ersen originally chose Penn because he was dating a girl who was a student at Columbia. He wanted to be close to her, and a Greyhound bus ticket from Philadelphia to New York was $2. Again, his love life boils down to simple math, if not one of two logical outcomes (spoiler alert!)
“I came to Philadelphia in January of 1966,” he said. “She drove me down. I made that bus trip to New York to see her in March. Soon after I returned to Philadelphia, I got a ‘Dear John’ letter from her in the mail.”
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Learn more about Ersen and his genuinely altruistic yet uniquely human approach to philanthropy through two of his most heartfelt gifts — a chair in Susan’s name and a fellowship in tribute to a favorite professor — or this 2016 Q&A as part of Texas A&M Student Research Week.