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Alumni Stories: Allison Barlow '86

Connecting the Dots by Lisa Birzen '03


Alison Barlow knows first hand the value of connections. Her life exemplifies the tremendous strength and effectiveness of the Dartmouth alumni network in action.

"My post-collegiate happiness is directly attributed to Dartmouth alumni," Barlow '86 exclaims, and she is not exaggerating.

A Dartmouth connection back in high school first helped enlist Dartmouth among Barlow's college choices. Coming from 'small-town' Wilmington, DE with a family history of not straying out-of-state for college, Barlow did not consider Dartmouth a possibility until an older field hockey teammate enrolled at the school.

With the seeds planted, Barlow visited the campus and, describing it as an 'utopia,' knew immediately that she had found a "very good fit."

"I didn't need to see other places and was just so happy with the environment and with everyone I met," Barlow says. Fortunately, she was accepted early admission and this self-described "homebody as a kid" prepared to embark on her collegiate adventure far from home.

Unbeknownst to her at this time, this first small step would lead to further expansions of her horizons, to an extent much larger than what she could have ever imagined.

While in college, Barlow took full advantage of all that Dartmouth had to offer. She played two sports - lacrosse and field hockey - juggled between psychology, biology and religion as potential majors and pursued a potential pre-med track longer than many other students.

Her already full load also contained as many English courses as Barlow could realistically fit into her schedule. "The problem was that everything I took I loved," Barlow explaims. Going from one satisfying course to another, she eventually ended up graduating with a degree in English.

The department's classes owe their high quality to 'amazing' professors, such as Donald Pease and Blanche Gelfant, whose influential ideas guide Barlow in her work to this day.

Barlow gained reassurance from Professor Pease, who "showed so much respect for my ideas and demanded I do the same." She also draws on her experience in Professor Gelfant's class in unanticipated ways in the teaching aspect of her current line of work.

A dose of reality came when Barlow met with her pre med advisor, who bluntly told her: You are very mediocre. Barlow faced the facts and realized that "medicine was not a top priority and if it will take total devotion then I'm probably not cut out for this line of work."

Ultimately, "my current line of work is broader and knots together all the various interests I have," resulting in a much more satisfying and fulfilling career.

Undeterred by her advisor's harsh words, however, Barlow went to work at The Children's Hospital in Boston, MA. Her experience there further convinced her that she "did not want to be a doctor" and she "was glad to not have into go to a clinical internship to figure this out."

As a first step to molding her ideal career, she concluded that she was "more interested in working with people in a grassroots way."

The advice of Todd Beane '86 would help add more, perhaps the most significant, criteria to describing her future profession.

At that time, Beane had just returned from a Rotary International study in England and suggested that Barlow apply to the organization to fund her graduate work as well.

This advice could not have been more life changing.

One year later, Barlow was off pursuing a Masters degree at Melbourne University in Melbourne, Australia.

Seeking a thesis project with a critical slant to "pass muster with the faculty," she focused on literary criticism. After studying foreign writers on the aborigine people and, "finding everything from the sublime to the ridiculous," she opted to study what aborigine writing reveals about how these people "see themselves in the context of white Australia."

As a result, Barlow recalls being "slammed by the white Australian critics for poking my flashlight around in what was a painful part of their history."

At that precise moment, Barlow's fate had been sealed. She did not know exactly when or how, but she knew without a doubt that she had to go back to the United States and work with the Native American people.

Traveling to Australia helped her to "figure out where home was, intellectually and physically."

Barlow's timely decision to visit Adelaide Pearson '86 and husband Greg Hulbert '86 in Los Angeles, CA on her return trip proved quite beneficial in advancing her professional career.

Through the married couple, Barlow met a young man who had just come out to the area to pursue film school, quitting a documentary film job in New York, NY.

When Barlow found out that the documentary, Healing and the Mind, focused on "global perspectives of healing and the contrast with our own western perspective," she knew that she had found her next job.

Convincing the director back in New York turned out to not be as easy. Pamela Mason Wagner '81, a Dartmouth alumnus herself, did not take the request for a meeting seriously, primarily because Barlow had no prior experience.

The two women, however, experienced "wonderful rapport and conversations" during their lunch meeting and, in the end, Barlow found herself hired as a research assistant.

This job was "getting me closer to what I wanted to do," Barlow recalls.

Researching information for the film in 1990 led Barlow down to the newly formed Center for American Indian and Alaskan Native Health at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD.

As fate would have it, due to scheduling conflicts, Barlow's scheduled meeting with Mathu Santosham ended up taking place with the Dean for External Affairs, Sylvia Eggleston, instead.

As it turned out, Eggleston was a great friend of Sally Michel, mother of Mary Page Michel '87, who, in turn, was Barlow's friend from college.

Looking ahead after her two months working on the documentary would be up, Barlow saw herself with no money and once again in search of work. Meeting Eggleston provided some reassurance in the face of these uncertainties.

At the time, the JHU School of Public Health needed a new director of Media Relations and a Deputy Director of Public Affairs. Eggleston offered Barlow both of these positions and, despite initial hesitations at moving to Baltimore, Barlow eventually took these jobs, at the urging of her mother and the encouragement of the Michel family.

Within this new capacity, Barlow got to "travel to a lot of places very unlike Baltimore which provided a balance needed in my life, with one foot in the mainstream and one far far away."

Despite previously vowing never to return to the development and public relations sphere, Barlow found herself in these same familiar surroundings once again.

One and a half years later, "glazed over" by her line of work, she announced that she would apply for the Peace Corps.

Her boss, Mathu Santhosham, objected. "If you want Peace Corps work, I'll give you Peace Corps work. Come work with me with American Indians."

"I knew that this is what I was meant to do! I am finally doing what I said I'd do three years ago," Barlow recalls.

Her immediate work would focus on behavioral programs for Native American youth and families. Santhosham told Barlow: if you can raise your own salary, then you can remain here.

Barlow took on Santhosham's challenge in 1992 and has been with the Center for American Indian and Alaskan Native Health, under the auspices of the JHU School of Hygiene and Public Health, ever since.

Within this new capacity, Barlow helped organize Native Vision, a summer camp for Native American children, taking place at different tribal reservations each year. This is a "life skills camp with sports as the vehicle."

Two other Dartmouth alumni used connections of their own to help launch and gain support for this camp. Dominic Lowery '78, who played in the NFL after graduation, initially suggested the idea for the camp as he was moving out to Arizona and wanted to benefit the surrounding tribes.

Alvaro Saralegui '78, at the time an editor of Sports Illustrated magazine, helped secure funding for the valiant efforts by running full page advertisements in the magazine.

Barlow also helps run a Homeless Shelter in Baltimore as well as training programs for Native Americans on the JHU campus and outreach programs to help pregnant teenagers access services within their tribal communities.

Looking back to college, Barlow says that Dartmouth "prepared me for what I am doing even though I did not know where I was going!"

"Dartmouth does not pressure its students to specialize, instead it prepares all to be generalists and then go on to develop that further. Laying such a foundation is very important and is instrumental to figuring out who you are," she adds.

"My path has been so circuitous but I needed every step to get to where I am now," Barlow comments. "Miraculously, all the threads have been braided," she happily concludes.

When graduating from college it is hard to envision the road ahead. Along with persistence and a strong sense of yourself, however, this road will lead you right to where you were meant to be.

Last Updated: 6/21/12