Profile: Small Kindnesses
Laurel Abbruzzese ’86 found support as an SPS student and is encouraged by the support network she sees today
Jana F. Brown
Laurel Abbruzzese ’86 found St. Paul’s when she initially was looking at independent schools in her native Atlanta through the A Better Chance program. When she was accepted, Abbruzzese recalls receiving a letter of welcome from the Third World Cultural Society, which supported students of color at St. Paul’s.
Although she did not feel comfortable with the name of the group, she recalls, “I remember feeling comforted that there were going to be students looking out for people who were in a new situation. That ended up being a support group for me.” There were students and faculty who reached out to make her feel welcome. Though she did experience a form of culture shock as she adjusted to life at SPS, Abbruzzese loved the academic rigor and found a second home among her fellow dancers in the SPS Ballet Company. She also experienced small kindnesses from faculty members, including Tony (King) Callahan ’76, who took Abbruzzese out for ice cream on her birthday in her Third Form year and Lorene Cary ’74, who taught at the School for a year. Her SPS big sister brought Abbruzzese to meals and helped her become engaged in the community, while she also bonded with her roommate, a scholarship student from Brooklyn.
St. Paul’s, observed Abbruzzese, was far less diverse than her previous school environment. “I think there were maybe four girls with brown skin in my Third Form class,” she says. But her most challenging adjustment involved keeping up with the accelerated pace of her classwork. She also says that managing socioeconomic differences was a challenge. “I never had been exposed to the levels of wealth I was exposed to at St. Paul’s,” she says. “I didn’t realize that world existed. I was pretty naïve. I also had some stereotypes about rich people that I had to break down. I assumed they would look down on me, but that wasn’t the case.”
Abbruzzese, an assistant professor of rehabilitation and regenerative medicine at Columbia University Medical Center’s Program in Physical Therapy, served as a trustee from 2007 to 2016. She is the parent of a current St. Paul’s Fifth Former and another daughter who will enter the School as a Third Former in the fall. Her older daughter, she says, initially found a supportive community in the Transitions group at the School. That support has extended to her dorm friends, athletic teams, and theater peers. Abbruzzese is encouraged by the larger number of minority students who now make up the student body at SPS. She has been involved both as a trustee and as a volunteer in discussions around improved participation for alumni of color. She says she has noticed an increase in attendance at the broader range of events now offered by the School.
“I was at the School for MLK weekend and it has evolved,” says Abbruzzese, who has been a form agent and form director for the Form of 1986. “There are more students of color, more opportunities to speak about their identities and their experiences with larger student groups. I don’t remember ever being able to do that as a student. Hopefully the increased engagement of alumni of color can have a positive impact on the student experience as well.”