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French-born alum made impact on education in U.S.

The French government awarded Michele Myers the Chevalier de l’Ordre de la Legion d’Honneur.

Esoteric rules often change lives, and it was such a force that brought French-born Michele (Tolela) Myers (MA ’66, PhD ’67) to America. Her academic journey began with the ink barely dry on a degree in economics and political science.

“By 1963 I was working for a GE-type company doing market research,” Myers says. “It was utterly boring, and I was itching to go back to school.”

Researching graduate programs in her native Paris, she soon discovered that academic rules required students to continue in their original field of study. Still, she gave starting over a chance.

“After a semester I thought, this is crazy. I don’t want to be a freshman again,” Myers recalls.

Soon after, her passion for semantics led to a workshop at Bard College. It was there that she met her future husband, Gail Myers.

“I told him that I would love to attend an American university but that I didn’t have the money,” Myers says. But through her workshop contacts, she eventually landed a scholarship at DU. By 1967, she had earned a PhD in communication studies.

Her degree anchored a career in liberal arts education. By 1998, Myers was president of New York’s Sarah Lawrence College. Until her retirement in June 2007, she was the only French college president in the United States.

This year, in recognition of her contributions as a French citizen to education in America, the French government awarded Myers the Chevalier de l’Ordre de la Legion d’Honneur.

“It was created by Napoleon,” Myers explains. “The award originally went to military men for bravery and good deeds.”

The recognition also holds special meaning for her.

“My father got the award for his military service,” Myers says. “He flew with the Americans and spent two and a half years with General Montgomery doing reconnaissance flights over Italy.”

Extending the award from father to daughter is a fitting career capstone. Not bad for a woman too restless to endure the déjà vu freshman experience that capricious rules would have forced upon her.

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