As she shuffles across the University of Arizona campus, it’s easy to wonder if 79-year-old Donna Swaim is a grandmother visiting her grandchild at the Tucson, Ariz. campus. Wearing a white button-up blouse and black suit pants, Swaim makes her way across the mall, lunchbox in hand, and ascends the stairs to the second floor of the Nugent Building. After taking her position at a table in the Native American Student Affairs Center, she gets comfortable in her chair, takes out papers to grade and waits for anyone to come up to her and talk.
Dr. Donna Swaim has spent 49 years teaching undergraduates at the University of Arizona, serving as a lecturer in the religious studies program and college of medicine, as well as being one of the original faculty fellows. However, despite all her academic contributions to the university, it is her reputation as being a friend that has provided her the greatest sense of worth.
Four days and 10 hours a week, Swaim holds office hours where anybody can come up to her and chat. Conversations end up being about virtually anything, but they all have something in common: they make you think.
“I always tell people: I don’t have a lot of answers, but I have a lot of questions,” Swaim said.
In 1984, the University of Arizona decided to create a faculty fellows program as a way for students to interact with teachers beyond a classroom setting. The goal of the program is for professors to serve as mentors for students, helping to make the transition from high school to college and beyond easier. Swaim joined the program in 1990 after being nominated for the position by her peers. She accepted the nomination and has been working as a faculty fellow since.
“Being a faculty fellow gives me the chance to interact with undergraduate students who are really my great joy in life,” Swaim said. “It’s a chance for me to see your potential for the future. I’m 79, so you’re going to go on and accomplish things that I can’t do, but on some level I’ll know what you’re doing it and I’ll be up there cheering.”
Swaim spent time as a mentor in residence halls and fraternities, eventually settling into her current role as a faculty fellow in both the Native American Student Affairs Center and the UA athletic department.
“Donna connects with [the athletes] in such a personal way,” said Becky Bell, the associate athletic director of the C.A.T.S. Life Skills program. “Her relationships with them continue long after they’re done meeting with her. Her contributions to the program have been invaluable.”
In the athletic department, Swaim has helped athletes through the pressures of college athletics, while also helping them figure out their interests outside of sports.
“She gets them to think about life and gets them to think about themselves other than being an athlete,” Bell said. “Her impact on their lives is very long-lasting.”
Among the athletes that Swaim has helped include former football players Alex Zendejas and Matt Scott, former women’s gymnastics All-American Katie Matusik and current women’s basketball player Davellyn Whyte. Swaim likes helping athletes because she can show her support for them by attending sporting events.
“It is important to athletes when I go to their meets,” Swaim said. “My job would really be more effective if I could go to at least half their meets.”
This sports year alone, Swaim has attended football, gymnastics and women’s and men basketball games. After Matt Scott’s final home game, he introduced Swaim to his family, referring to her as his friend.
Swaim’s ability to build relationships with people a quarter of her age stems from her gift of being able to relate to people. She uses her past experiences as way to add context to people’s lives.
Donna Swaim was born Jan. 5, 1934 in Wheatland, Wyo., the youngest of five siblings. She grew up on a farm in western Nebraska and stayed in the state through college, earning a degree in history from the University of Nebraska. It was there that she met her husband, Bob, who she married before graduating.
After living in Nebraska, Albuquerque, N.M. and London and celebrating the birth of their two children, Katy, 56, and Phil, 54, the couple settled into a home in Tucson. While Bob served as an architect in the city, Donna began taking poetry classes, one at a time, at the University of Arizona. In addition to taking classes, Donna began teaching them as well, serving as a freshman English teacher and a part-time humanities professor. After three years of writing her dissertation, Swaim earned her Ph.D from the University of Arizona in 1978.
Meanwhile in 1978, the Arizona Department of Corrections decided to open a state prison complex on Wilmot Road in Tucson, with the inmates consisting non-violent, 18-25- year-old males. Right after Swaim finished her degree, a friend came to her with an interesting proposition.
According to Swaim, “He asked me, ‘Have you ever considered teaching in prison cause I know that they’re going to be hiring a lot. Why don’t you come out here and do some academic advising and some GED tutoring.’”
Both afraid that her part-time teaching job at the university would not be extended and curious of what teaching there would be like, she committed to working at the prison. Swaim was later offered a full-time job as a professor, but stuck with the job at the prison. She spent parts of the next eight years teaching one class, for university credit, at the prison as well as two classes on the UA campus.
As she spent more time at the prison, some of the inmates began approaching her asking if they could talk about their personal lives. Because she was a volunteer, they felt comfortable opening up to her as opposed to the Department of Corrections-appointed psychologist.
“They told me these things because they knew that I loved all of them,” Swaim said.
She eventually stopped working there in 1986 after developing an autoimmune disease, but it wasn’t before she learned a lot about people in general.
“Those young men taught me a lot about being human beings and I’m grateful for that,” Swaim said.
In 2003, at age 69, Swaim found out that she needed a liver transplant. She searched the country for the Mayo Clinic with the shortest wait time and eventually hopped on a plane to Jacksonville, Fla. After just 12 days in the state, Swaim received her transplant on what she likes to call her, “Re-Birthday.”
At the same time, the University of Arizona announced they were going to cut their humanities program. Luckily for Swaim, she had developed a strong reputation across
campus, which persuaded Dr. Robert Burns to allow her to teach the class out of the religious studies department. Since then, her RELI 307: Spirituality in the Arts class is one of the more popular classes on campus.
“Very caring, very outgoing, very ordered and somebody who wants people to learn how to think,” Burns said when describing Swaim. “I’ve met so many people who said she was the best teacher they ever had. She just has this way about her to make you feel important, that you’re the only person in the world.”
Next year will mark Swaim’s 50th year of undergraduate teaching at the University of Arizona. While all of her students have taken different paths, she still continues to stay in touch with a large chunk of them. One of her former students, Melissa Vito, is now the vice president of student affairs at the university.
“I was a humanities student in her class as an 18-year-old sophomore, unsure of what I wanted to do and not very motivated,” said Vito. “I turned in a mediocre paper and she wrote to me in her comments that I wasn’t living up to my potential and she wanted to meet with me. I did meet with her and rewrote the paper for an A-plus. She literally changed my life.”
While she knows her career is dwindling down, her impact on the university is not only talked about, but also physical, as there is an honors lounge in the student union and a study abroad scholarship named after her. And despite her age, she will continue to serve as a lecturer, mentor and friend until her health does not allow her to anymore.
“I always say that when I went to school, I didn’t major in teaching or psychology,” Swaim said. “I majored in human beings.”
Note: This assignment was completed for my Journalism 411: Feature Writing class.