In Episode 3, President Bob Iuliano and guest Ben Pontz ’20 discuss the breadth and depth of opportunities and experiences that students can pursue at Gettysburg College. Specifically, they unpack Pontz’s immersive Gettysburg College experience as Pontz reflects on his most memorable moments thus far.
In this episode of Conversations Beneath the Cupola, podcast host, Gettysburg College President Robert W. Iuliano, is joined by guest Benjamin Pontz ’20. Pontz is a political science and public policy double major, music minor, and a very involved student across campus. He serves as a drum major of the marching band, an Eisenhower Institute Fielding Fellow, and the Editor-in-Chief of The Gettysburgian, among many other pursuits.
Iuliano and Pontz begin the episode by acknowledging the turning of the tables. An active member of The Gettysburgian, Pontz is often the interviewer, not the interviewee. He has written more than 188 articles for The Gettysburgian, and of these, his beginning to end coverage of the College’s newly approved business major and the newspaper staff’s editorial endorsement of the College’s institutional philosophy on freedom of expression are among his favorites.
Beyond The Gettysburgian, the Eisenhower Institute, and the marching band, Pontz is the news director of the campus radio station and holds a host of campus jobs. Pontz attributes his ability to be so active on campus to the breadth and depth of opportunity that exits at Gettysburg College. Between academics and extracurriculars, Pontz has a lot on his plate, but his “secret” to making it all work is careful planning. He identifies several goals for himself each year and checks in on them every week to ensure he is making progress.
At the end of the interview Iuliano asks Pontz to reflect on what he would change about his Gettysburg College experience if he had the chance. Above all else, Pontz wishes he would have spent more time talking with his professors about their fields of expertise, though he admits he’s unsure what would have needed to go in his busy schedule to allow it.
Guests featured in this episode
Benjamin Pontz ’20, a political science and public policy double major and music minor.
Benjamin Pontz: I don’t think at any other school I would have had the breadth and depth of opportunity to do music and to do journalism.
Robert Iuliano: The most powerful proof points of the liberal arts education are the passionate pursuits and outcomes of our students.
Robert Iuliano: Hi, and welcome to Conversations Beneath the Cupola, a Gettysburg College podcast where we highlight the great work happening on campus and beyond. I’m Bob Iuliano, President of Gettysburg College and your host.
Robert Iuliano: In this episode we are joined by Ben Pontz, a political science and public policy double major, music minor and a very involved member of the Class of 2020. Ben serves as a drum major of the marching band, as an Eisenhower Institute Fielding Fellow and the Editor-in-Chief of The Gettysburgian to name a few of his many pursuits.
Robert Iuliano: Ben, thank you for joining me today. In your role as the editor of The Gettysburgian it is normally you who is interviewing me. I thought it was only fair ... what’s the old saying? Turnaround is fair play. So I thought it was only fair to put you on the other side of the microphone and have the opportunity to get to know you a little bit better, but more importantly to help you help our alumni and other interested friends of the college get a better sense of what it means to be a student at Gettysburg College. So thank you for joining me today.
Benjamin Pontz: Happy to be here. Although as you mentioned, this is a bit of an unfamiliar territory. I usually ask the questions that don’t have any clear answers and then watch other people squirm, so this’ll be different and exciting.
Robert Iuliano: It will increase your level of empathy, so I’m looking forward to that.
Robert Iuliano: You’ve written a variety of articles during your time at The Gettysburgian. Do you have one in particular that stands out for you as your particular favorite?
Benjamin Pontz: Oh wow. In preparation for this thinking that something on this topic might come up, I looked it up and I have apparently over the past seven semesters or so written a total of 188 articles which struck me as a lot. I didn’t reread all of them.
Robert Iuliano: I’m glad to hear that.
Benjamin Pontz: Yeah. I would say that a couple of areas stand out. Last spring I wrote a 6,600 word diatribe about the just whole beginning to end story of the business major and all of that and how it fizzled a little bit last spring and certainly has since been approved. But in looking at that, there was a lot of history baked into that story and looking back at efforts in the college back to the 1980s around some of the same questions of what constitutes a liberal arts education. And so that was certainly one story that was interesting and fascinating that I ... As we are recording this in the beginning of finals week, or are heading into finals week, I wrote that last spring instead of getting ready for finals week. I did okay on my finals so it was okay. In any case that would be one.
Benjamin Pontz: The other one that would I guess stand out would be a couple of ... this was probably the spring of 2017 I guess, or maybe 2018 ... they all run together, but as the college worked on developing a statement of institutional philosophy on freedom of expression, The Gettysburgian editorially endorsed that statement. I wrote most of the editorial. In fact there was a particular line from it that I probably will not quote completely accurately, but it had something to do with our freedom ringing loudest when we don’t silence others or something. And your predecessor, President Riggs told me, “Ben I think that should be on a wall somewhere.”
Robert Iuliano: And now you’ve stenciled it on your wall and-
Benjamin Pontz: And my mother ... I must have told my mother this, and she got it printed out and framed and it is now indeed on my wall.
Robert Iuliano: Congratulations to your mother who I assume will listen to this podcast. Well done.
Robert Iuliano: Why those articles? What makes those seem to you particularly important or have a connection to you that strikes you as worthy of separating them from the other 188 or whatever number it is you said you’d written?
Benjamin Pontz: I think that ideally what ... there’s the old phrase that journalism is the first draft of history. I think that ideally what The Gettysburgian does in addition to informing the campus community today on what’s going on today is that I have many friends that are history majors and they tell me that in their historical methods classes in particular when they’re writing papers about the history of the college, it’s all almost, not all, but one of the primary sources they’re using is archived editions of The Gettysburgian.
Benjamin Pontz: And so thinking about what kind of the big issues on campus today are and then framing them in a way that brings the context of what questions those stories touch on, broader themes about the liberal arts and what the college’s role in society in general is. And I think that both those stories and both those topics in general illuminate some of those themes.
Robert Iuliano: I don’t want to focus our attention solely on The Gettysburgian as important as it is because you do a lot more than that as a student on campus. Give us a sense of some of the other activities that you engage in.
Benjamin Pontz: Yeah, so in addition to The Gettysburgian, which I would say is probably the primary extracurricular activity, I have a host of campus jobs including working at the research desk at the library and working as a faculty member’s research assistant over in the political science department. I serve as a teaching assistant or PLA for pure learning associate for a first year seminar in the political science department. And so those things take up a good chunk of time. But in addition I serve in a club sort of sense; I’m the news director of the campus radio station over at WZBT, which ties into a lot of the work I do at The Gettysburgian.
Benjamin Pontz: But separate from all of that, I’ve been involved in some Eisenhower Institute programs, including the former Inside the Middle East program. That was my sophomore year and that culminated with a trip to Israel in the West bank. That was certainly an interesting and formative experience in a number of ways. This year I am a Fielding Fellow in the Fielding Center for Presidential Leadership Study, which is has entailed some work at presidential libraries. Thus far we went to the JFK library in September, and January we’ll be going to the Reagan and Nixon libraries on a whirlwind round robin tour of California the week before the spring semester starts. I anticipate it being warmer. I’m hopeful that it will be warmer there than it will be here in January, but I guess we’ll find out.
Benjamin Pontz: The other project relating to the Fielding Center is that the Fielding Fellows are working on a state department research grant that is exploring economic development in Montenegro. In March we will be heading to Montenegro, which is a country that I think perhaps at the outset of the project many of us would not have been able to place on a map necessarily, but that we have certainly learned a great deal about in the past several months and will continue as we’re looking at that.
Benjamin Pontz: So that’s all of that. And then aside from that, of course there’s the various things that I do in the conservatory.
Robert Iuliano: Including as the drum major of the band, as I understand it.
Robert Iuliano: It is so striking. I’ve been on this campus now for five months or so. While your experience is I think on the extreme of student engagement, I will say it is one of the things that I have so admired here that our students have the opportunity, and I think this is a byproduct of the fact that we are the size that we are. That is we are not so small; we are not so big. Our students have the opportunity to engage in things that would be hard to do at a smaller school but are possible because we’re not so large that these opportunities are foreclosed because of just the sheer number of students seeking to compete.
Robert Iuliano: I’ve also experienced Ben, that, and I’m curious if this is your experience, that all of these extracurricular and co-curricular activities end up amplifying the students learning and learning not just about the world but also about themselves; where their talents lie, where their passions lie. Has that been true for you?
Benjamin Pontz: Yeah absolutely. I think there are a couple of discrete examples that maybe I can share to just shed a little bit of light on that. Certainly with The Gettysburgian there have been a whole host of skills that have proved useful in internship experiences subsequently as far as some nuts and bolts things about running websites and starting and editing podcasts and those sorts of things. But also there are probably not a whole lot of other opportunities where someone with the level of experience that I have is running an organization that 50 or 60 students involved and involves everything from top level chartings kind of what the strategic directions of that organization are going to be all the way down to after this interview, picking up the pizza for our holiday event that will be happening this evening.
Benjamin Pontz: There’s just a whole host of responsibilities associated with that.
Robert Iuliano: As you took on these responsibilities, has this been a do it yourself, learn it on your own experience, or has the college helped guide you in any respect? Do you have advisors? How does that work?
Benjamin Pontz: I think the answer to your question there is yes, it has been both of those things. Certainly every organization of which I have been part has been well advised by faculty members and administrators alike. And certainly their counsel has been of great importance to the success, particularly of The Gettysburgian and of the marching band, which I imagine we’ll get to. But in general I would say that it’s not advising as far as here’s what you should do; it’s advising in the sense of, well, I’m going to sit here and let you talk through this and work to the answer that you’re going to get to and then tell you that I think that’s the right thing to do, or maybe suggest that there’s a different path you could take.
Robert Iuliano: I can imagine the how to do it may be different than the what to do. Rightly, the what to do, being a judgment by the student. How do you make it all work? That is, you’ve taken a rigorous academic curriculum throughout your three and a half years here and you have all these other activities. How do you balance it all?
Benjamin Pontz: Carefully. I would say that in kind of practical terms, I’m a pretty copious and perhaps neurotic organizer and planner and a counter of my time, but I think that in general it’s about taking time when I’m not in the thick of all of it to identify goals. I identified I think 20 or 30 goals for the year of 2019 spread across different areas from academics to extracurricular activities to personal items. And every week I check in on how those are going.
Benjamin Pontz: It’s funny. This kind of arose out of a ... Everyone sets these New Year’s resolutions and I’m like ... how many people actually follow through on them. But it was one year when instead of doing that, I figured well I’ll start outlining some more specific things, and then every week I do check in on them. I would say that of the 20 ... I think there were a total of 32 this year, I would say that maybe 20 of them are in the bag. A few of them are no progress made and the rest are somewhere in between.
Robert Iuliano: Well that sounds to me admirable progress, all things considered.
Robert Iuliano: You mentioned the Eisenhower Institute, which is one of our distinctive programs, but you also talked about the band and your music minor in the conservatory. One of the other distinctive aspects of Gettysburg College is the fact that we have the Sunderman Conservatory. My experience is that having a conservatory of that quality deeply embedded the way it is here within a liberal arts education is distinct and actually ends up creating opportunities for students that may not be true in other conservatories. You have no comparative reference, but have you found that the conservatory work, the band work and the academic work complement one another?
Benjamin Pontz: Yes. I think that one thing that is just true in terms of the numbers is that to have all of the various music ensembles that we have at this college takes more people than a college of this size can enroll as music majors who are going to pursue this professionally. And so that has created a wealth of opportunity for students such as myself who are not planning to be professional musicians of any type, but who have enjoyed music in high school or wherever and come into this environment and find opportunities from the very beginning.
Benjamin Pontz: The conservatory has been a place where I have found the opportunity to find some release from other things. When all else fails the euphonium or now this semester, oddly enough, the bass trombone is just sitting there and it’s something I can do that takes my mind off of other things and do at a level that is at minimum, is able to support the people who are doing this professionally.
Robert Iuliano: So why Gettysburg? You had choices I know, including of schools that some people would regard as higher ranked than ours. Why’d you end up here?
Benjamin Pontz: That’s a question that I have been asked several times and always feel like I have a less than satisfying answer to at least into why I decided at the beginning to go. I visited Gettysburg the spring of my junior year of high school, and truth be told do not have any recollection of that visit other than that it happened and that I think we stopped at the Sheetz on the way home.
Benjamin Pontz: It was on my list in high school. I visited other colleges and as my senior year rolled around, had reasons to cross off other schools. I ended up in April ... and as you may know decision day is May 1st, in April still wondering about Gettysburg. I ended up going on the political science department website and cold emailing ... I guess the corollary of cold calling ... cold emailing two political science professors who were American government folks and that’s what I thought I might be interested in studying. One of them, Dr. Shirley Anne Warshaw wrote me back in a day with a pretty detailed case for why Gettysburg. I read this email. “Oh, that’s interesting. I wrote her back and asked a few questions. And she said, “And you know, you’ll enjoy my first year seminar,” which as I mentioned earlier, I now am the TA for. I said, “Okay.”
Benjamin Pontz: It was just that in combination with knowing that Gettysburg had a marching band that kind of got me over the hump to decide that Gettysburg was going to be where I was going to try and make this happen. I think that certainly I’ve appreciated that I made that decision at the time, even though I don’t know that I had necessarily fully thought through what all of the next four years would look like at the time.
Robert Iuliano: So I take it from this, you’re not looking back and saying, “Boy, I screwed up in making that decision?”
Benjamin Pontz: No. I would say that certainly I don’t think at any other college that I considered ... and as you mentioned, I considered some that rankings take them for whatever they’re worth ... would be considered higher. But I don’t think at any other school I would have had the breadth and depth of opportunity to do music and to do journalism, which are both things that I doubt I’ll be necessarily going into professionally, although who knows. But to do them at the depth here as kind of things on the side wall, studying political science seriously while double majoring and doing all the things in EI. And having in the course ... the same spring I went to Israel, and with an EI program two months before was in Europe with the wind symphony and it is just a ...
Robert Iuliano: It is very much a classic Gettysburg story. The other thing that has so impressed me in my time here is not only just the sense of community, but how passionately people feel about the college, not just our alums. I was just talking to someone the other day who was observing that a great sign of a healthy and dynamic campus, a place where students are happy is just walk around and see the number of students who are wearing their school apparel. If you walk around the campus, you see just about everybody ... You are currently wearing a Gettysburg sweatshirt. It’s really quite something.
Robert Iuliano: So you’re going to graduate, we hope in a semester and-
Benjamin Pontz: I hope so too.
Robert Iuliano: ... [crosstalk 00:16:47] of finals. Maybe you can’t answer this, but do you feel like you are prepared? I know you don’t know exactly. I’m not going to ask you what you’re going to do. So you don’t know exactly what’s next for you. But do you feel like Gettysburg has prepared you well?
Benjamin Pontz: I certainly hope so. I do think so. I read an article a while back that said that ... I don’t remember what the number was, but I think it was a double digit number of the number of expected jobs that people graduating from college will hold in their lifetime. It’s difficult to imagine that any college experience would have been the hard skills preparation for all of those many jobs. But I think that it’s difficult to imagine that any of those jobs and not even just jobs, anything that I would do after Gettysburg College will be something that doesn’t require working with other people who sometimes for ...
Benjamin Pontz: In the case of the newspaper, there’s nothing that I can really ... I don’t have any money to pay them. I don’t have any real incentives to offer other than the intrinsic value of what I believe we’re doing and what I think that I’ve been able to convince members of my team that we’re doing. It’s difficult to imagine that those sorts of skills of building teams and of communicating effectively in writing and in verbal discourse ... although I feel like this answer’s a little bit rambling, so maybe the verbal discourse needs to be honed a little bit ... that those skills won’t be useful in any post-Gettysburg thing.
Robert Iuliano: You’ve just given I think a classic defense of the liberal arts education in the first instance in two ways, Ben. One is that, as I’m fond of saying, if you can tell me what the future of work looks like, then I’m happy to prepare you for it. But I think the changes in technology, the changes in society, the changes in the world will mean there’s a dynamism in the nature of work and the nature of life I think that’s coming ahead. And so the important thing of a liberal arts education is to give students like you the skills to be able to adapt, to be able to respond to changing circumstances. And the varied experiences you have had in the classroom and outside of the classroom I hope have prepared you for doing that. I think that’s an important part of what we’re seeking to do.
Robert Iuliano: So a couple of more questions from me. One is if you could change one thing about your Gettysburg experience, what would it be?
Benjamin Pontz: There are some classes I’ve taken during the time that I’ve been here in which I have probably missed the opportunity to engage with the person who’s teaching that class, who is an expert in their field to the extent that I wish I would have given that I am unlikely to be at a place where I can wander into the world’s leading expert on Abraham Lincoln’s office and he’ll drop everything and chat with me about Abraham Lincoln. It’s difficult to say what I should have taken out in order to do that, given all of the things that I have done. But I do think that if there’s something I would do more, it would be to spend more time chatting with faculty in their offices, not specifically about a particular upcoming exam or something.
Robert Iuliano: I think that’s exactly right. Now I can’t speak to your experience, but the hallmark of this place is the intimate relationship between faculty and students, not just in the classroom and the commitment of the faculty to help students.
Robert Iuliano: My last question to you Ben, and that is what would the Editor-in-Chief Ben Pontz, ask the student Ben Pontz, that I have not asked you? Ben, you do have to answer that question just to be clear, so you’d better give yourself a softball.
Benjamin Pontz: Oh boy. What’s your favorite SERVO? No. I truthfully don’t usually have enough time to eat in SERVO.
Benjamin Pontz: One thing I haven’t done is studied abroad and that’s something that certainly a great number of students here do. And so I guess the question that the editor might ask is why did someone who did so many other things not study abroad? I think the answer to that is that there was a lot going on on campus that I felt like I would be leaving to do that. I think that one thing that has certainly become clear to me is that Gettysburg’s campus has this kind of ineffable magnetic attraction to people that ... it certainly has for me ... that leaving it even for a semester didn’t seem like it was going to be something that outweighed what might be achieved on campus in the community.
Benjamin Pontz: I think that certainly a focus of mine academically has been communities and local institutions. And the institutions on this campus that I was part of and others that I get to cover as part of The Gettysburgian for example, were of such importance and vitality that I felt like I wanted to be a part of them for all eight semesters that I had the chance to do so.
Robert Iuliano: That’s a perfectly mature and thoughtful answer. 60 some odd percent of our students study abroad, but that means that 40 some odd percent or 30 some odd percent do not. And what you have done with your time here, I think I can confidently say has permitted you to experience this in a very full way. So used the phrase tied down. I’m not sure if Gettysburg tied you down as much as it permitted you to really become untethered and to begin to experience the fullness of this place and again, understand yourself in the world a little bit better.
Robert Iuliano: Ben, I’m very grateful for you having spent the time with us today. Good luck on your upcoming exams and papers and in your final semester. I look forward to seeing not only what you’re going to do while you’re here, but I’m quite confident, I’m looking forward to seeing what you’re going to do when you graduate, so thank you.
Benjamin Pontz: Thanks. Happy to do it.
Robert Iuliano: Let me conclude with a slice of life from Gettysburg College.
Robert Iuliano: One of the many enjoyable aspects of my job is that it introduces me to remarkable people. A little earlier in the semester I had the privilege and it truly was a privilege to meet Sneha Shrestha. Sneha is a 2010 graduate of the college. She came to Gettysburg from Nepal wanting to have a more expansive education than was possible at home. She was seeking a true liberal arts experience and began her time here as a globalization studies major. As she described it to me she enjoyed her studies but also found herself drawn to a passion for the arts. She ultimately double majored in globalization studies and studio art.
Robert Iuliano: Since her graduation, she has become a widely recognized artist who fuses interest in cultures. Her art typically in the form of large murals combines the style of American graffiti and Sanskrit scriptures. Her work has been commissioned by Harvard, Reebok, TripAdvisor, and Red Bull among others. Her murals are found both domestically and throughout the world. Her work is vibrant, provocative, and in some cases even painted in orange and blue. To add to her impressive list of accomplishments, she received her master’s degree in education from Harvard University and started the first children’s museum in her native Nepal to provide youth the creative space to develop their skills.
Robert Iuliano: Gettysburg prides itself on graduating students infused with a healthy dose of practical idealism. Sneha embodies that orientation toward life. She works under the name of Imagine, the translation of her mother’s name into English, but to me, she is pure inspiration.
Robert Iuliano: Thanks for listening. If you’ve enjoyed this conversation and want to be notified of future episodes, please subscribe to Conversations Beneath the Cupola by visiting gettysburg.edu. If you have a topic or suggestion for a future podcast, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you. Until next time.