An unending confidence in his students:The legacy of Professor Dan Connell

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By Taylor Rapalyea
Staff Writer

Dan Connell: communications professor, Simmons Voice advisor, and honorary degree committee chair; once dropped out of the University of Buffalo.

But not before writing an ironic Nietzsche quote on his philosophy final.

He told me this after I broke down crying in his office while meeting about the student newspaper. I’d been holding it together for months, but I was overwhelmed, and I finally broke.

So he told me the story of how he dropped out of college. Which, if you know Professor Connell, is hilarious. But that’s the kind of person he is. He cares about his students more than they care about themselves.

And Connell, the highly accomplished journalist, author, professor, lecturer, husband, and father, is also the kind of person who once bailed on his higher education. He insists he had an A average when he resumed his education at U. Buffalo.

Connell got his start in journalism at age 31, after a slew of equally interesting career choices, including music librarian. He traveled to Africa, spurred by what he learned as a part of anti-Vietnam war protests and the civil rights movement, to write about their struggle for democracy.

It didn’t take him long to focus his efforts on Eritrea, a country few have heard of, and their plight for liberation. His work was published by the Associated Press, BBC, the Washington Post, and Reuters, among others.

The Voice staff will never forget the time he offhandedly mentioned a death threat he got on his Facebook, the result of an article he had written about Eritrea (one of many.) If what they say is true — that you’re not writing important articles unless you tick someone off — then Connell is the best there is.

Connell also conceived and leads the South Africa trip — a three-week study abroad course in South Africa — every two years. Alums of that trip maintain that their lives have never been the same.

“As much as Connell helped us figure how to put our feelings and thoughts about all that we learned down on paper in a clear, intelligent manner, he also set an example of what a ‘global community’ means and looks like,” said Amanda Gross, a Simmons grad. “And he taught us how to be part of it.”

When word got out that he and Professor Joan Abrams were going to be let go over the summer, the outpouring of support against the decision was overwhelming. The petition that protested their termination garnered 634 signatures, most of which were accompanied by moving sentiments regarding their time at Simmons.

As the advisor of the Voice, Connell encourages students to pursue journalism in a serious way, and he’s one of the few. Many professors in the communications department, regardless of how supportive they are otherwise, discourage students from seeking a career in reporting.

He makes his students better writers by making them read prize-winning features and putting them through endless writing exercises. But more than that, he speaks to his classes as though he truly believes they can do something —write something —enduring.

Connell doesn’t teach us how to write press releases or how to compose a popular tweet. He teaches his students how to write as though they’re going for a Pulitzer. His pupils have gone on to the Boston Globe, Poynter, and the Boston Herald. He teaches students to write something that lasts.

One plea on Connell’s petition, from Simmons grad Katie Poole, echoes the feeling of many students who know him: “Without Dan’s classes and lessons about journalism and life I’d be a completely different person.”

During his final semester at Simmons, Connell also engaged with his global community by serving as the lead speaker at the University of London on Eritrean refugees, forced migration, and human trafficking. He participated as a Warburg panelist on the civil war in South Sudan.

Through his final months at the college, Connell published a peer-reviewed article on Eritrea with Oxford University Press as well as an opinion piece for the Washington-based Foreign Policy in Focus, a self-described “think tank without walls.”

Asked what he would miss most about Simmons, Connell said, “Watching students find themselves and their voices on the voyage of discovery that college is—seeing graduates leave, transformed by their experience here, taking control of their lives and fired up about what they’ll do in and to the world and thinking, ‘I’ve played some small part in that.’

“The highlight has been the travels to South Africa where I’ve seen lives changed in three short weeks and then watched with great pleasure what they’ve done afterward,” Connell continued. “This course brings together my main passions—Africa, social justice, and writing. Seeing others take them up and run with them is both exciting and deeply rewarding. It’s perfect that this is the last thing I’ll do as a Simmons professor this May.”

It’s not enough to say that Professor Connell will be missed. It’s not enough to list every little thing, concrete or not, that he’s contributed to the department.

His legacy will continue, perhaps elsewhere, but always, because you sure as hell can’t keep a good man down.

Photos from www.danconnell.net