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Dartmouth's 45-year-old first-year student

Dartmouth College Office of Public Affairs • Press Release
Posted 08/06/09 • Media Contact: Susan Knapp (603) 646-3661

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Don Rains
Don Rains (photo by Joseph Mehling '69)

Podcast: Listen to a "Views from the Green" interview with Don

In the news: "A college freshman at 45, he hopes 'to inspire'" (USA Today)

"45-year-old Sisseton Wahpeton Dartmouth freshman hopes to inspire" (Indian Country Today)

By some measures, Don Rains, from Stony Creek, Conn., is a typical member of Dartmouth’s incoming freshman class of 2013 that will arrive on campus this fall. He loves Shakespeare; he can’t wait to enroll in some studio art courses; he is exceedingly self motivated; and he’s eager to learn. But, at 45 years old, he’ll be a non-traditional student on this Ivy League campus in a category all by himself.

“I’m not apprehensive,” says Rains, who is looking forward to meeting his fellow students. “Everyone works to try and figure out what their calling is. I’m just a little farther along in that process. I want to bring something to the college and to the students.”

Rains will certainly bring a lifetime’s worth of experiences to campus. His mother, a heroin addict, was killed by her boyfriend when Rains was nine years old. At that age, he was already cooking meals, grocery shopping, riding the cross-town bus, going to the laundromat. He watched his mother do drugs, and he was once held hostage by two armed, masked men looking for heroin.

With his father incarcerated, he became the custody of the State of California, and continued to be self-sufficient as he endured a juvenile detention center and alcoholic foster parents, and he graduated from Aragon High School in San Mateo, Calif., in 1982. Navy service from 1982-1989 brought more experiences, notably working on the flight deck of a nuclear aircraft carrier. Extended periods at sea offered Rains a chance to read. He preferred literature, the likes of Cervantes, Proust, Shakespeare, or Nobel Prize winners.

“I tried to figure out why my mother did the things she did,” says Rains. “To answer that, I read to gather the intellect of others.”

After the Navy, Rains bounced from job to job, “doing everything it took to make a living.” He bought and sold antiques; he worked in restaurant kitchens. He met his future wife Ashley in 1991, and they eventually settled in Connecticut, where they’ve been for the past 15 years. Somewhere along the way, he became interested in his heritage, which deepened when he discovered his Sioux ancestry. He found a cousin in South Dakota; they share a maternal grandmother who had 12 children. Rains has since been reconnected to the Sisseton-Wahpeton tribe (his Indian name is Wankinyan-Atunwanpi-Hoksina “Thunderbirds Watch Over Him”), and his Native American explorations reawakened his love of art – namely creating it.

Don takes a tour of the Dartmouth campus

“I spent a lot of time alone as a child, and I remember that I liked to draw,” says Rains. “After my mother died, I abandoned art. Then, in July 2007, I picked up painting for the first time.”

It was his artwork that eventually led him to Dartmouth. Rains stopped by the Visions Toward Wellness Gallery in Stony Creek, Conn., because he liked a few of the pieces displayed. He and owner Jon Moscartolo, a member of the Dartmouth Class of 1963, struck up a friendship, and the gallery now carries some of Rains’s works.

“I was knocked out by Don’s painting,” says Moscartolo, who learned Rains’s personal history. “I talked a little about my background, and I mentioned Dartmouth’s commitment to educate Native Americans.”

"Helen" by Don Rains

Moscartolo, who studied art at Dartmouth and was a Senior Fellow, was eager to show Rains the campus, especially the 1930s-era mural, “The Epic of American Civilization,” by José Clemente Orozco located in the basement of Baker Library. “Don was mesmerized when he saw it. I had that same reaction 45 years previously.”

Dartmouth Admissions Officer Phil Gover remembers that day in November 2007 when Rains visited with his wife and Moscartolo. Gover and Rains talked about the possibility of applying and perhaps attending. “There were big barriers,” recalls Gover. “Primarily, his academic record was neither current nor complete.” Gover recommended that Rains take some college-level classes to gauge his abilities, but with the understanding that in all likelihood none of these credits would transfer. “Don asked all the right questions, and I was very impressed. But the obstacles seemed insurmountable.”

To Gover’s delight, Rains enrolled in and aced courses from Gateway Community College in New Haven, Conn. “I got periodic updates from him, and I thought, wow, he’s really going to do this.” Gover eventually advised applying early decision, and Rains was accepted. “Don’s application really stood out for its intangibles, its life-long love of learning, its passion and determination,” says Gover.

Two other people Rains met at Dartmouth were Brenda Garand, chair of the Studio Art Department, and Enrico Riley, senior lecturer in Studio Art and a member of the Dartmouth Class of 1995. Prospective students sometimes send samples of their work, but rarely meet faculty in person. Both Garand and Riley noticed Rains’s intensity.

“Don is, without a doubt, serious about what he is doing,” says Garand. “It’s important to him.” Riley adds, “He has experience to work from, a drive and a focus from his personal background. In artwork, I look for conviction, authenticity, openness, all things I found in his work.”

Garand and Riley look forward to having Rains in the classroom. “In art, age is not a factor,” says Riley. “We are dealing with human issues – trying to cobble out and claim a language through art.” Garand says, “The learning will definitely go both ways. I’m sure we’ll learn from Don, and the students always learn from each other.”

Admissions Officer Gover, who also works closely with Native American students, knows that Rains will be a one-of-a-kind student at Dartmouth, but he’ll have both the Native community and the art community to draw from and fall back on. And, of course, he’ll also have the support of his wife Ashley, who encouraged Rains to pursue a Dartmouth education. Rains, who moved to New Hampshire this month, is living in a local apartment with Ashley, not in a residence hall.

"Inner City Public Pool" by Don Rains

Right now, Rains plans to take courses in drawing, and he can also explore art courses in printmaking, photography, sculpture, or architecture, to name a few. He also hopes to feed his love of literature with English Department offerings. Rains is also interested in working with young people. He’s developing a program he calls Dynamic Decision Making aimed at students 12-18 to thwart teen drinking, unplanned pregnancies, and drug use, something he hopes to bring to schools in the Upper Valley region of Vermont and New Hampshire where Dartmouth is located.

Long-term plans have yet to be made – that’s what college is for, says Rains, to explore new opportunities and be willing to try whatever presents itself.

Dartmouth has television (satellite uplink) and radio (ISDN) studios available for domestic and international live and taped interviews. For more information, call 603-646-3661 or see our Radio, Television capability webpage.

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Last Updated: 2/23/10