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February Feature: Dr. David Hess, Alumni Class of '74

February Feature: Dr. David Hess, Alumni Class of ‘74

This month, we are spotlighting Dr. David Hess, an alumnus who started the Anthropology Club on campus in 1974. Following his time at William & Mary, Dr. Hess completed a Ph.D. in Cultural Anthropology at the University of Pittsburgh, after which he pursued a career in applied anthropology. Here is what he had to say about his time at William & Mary, and its impact on his career:

I decided that I wanted to study anthropology in high school when I learned about human evolution. My senior project in honors biology was to create a poster presentation and lecture on the emergence of modern people starting with Australopithecus. As I finished high school in northern Virginia in 1969-70, the Vietnam war was raging. After all the excitement of 1968-70, when I was involved  as an organizer in multiple massive anti-war demonstrations in Washington, arrival in Williamsburg in September 1970 proved disappointingly quiet...But we had anti-war marches in the ‘Burg and the anthropology majors whom I met were very cool. I finished the required core courses my freshman year and jumped into all the anthropology courses I could take as a sophomore. I was not disappointed by any of those courses and the quirky and knowledgeable faculty turned me on to a fantastic variety of subjects. 

The department had a fabulous cast of characters in the early 1970’s, including Professors Carol Ballingall, Ted Reinhart, Norm Barka, Steve Reyna, and Vinson Sutlive. Steve taught me in two courses – African Peoples and Cultures and Cultural Ecology. I later chose Cultural Ecology as my specialty for my doctoral research in Bolivia, and I have now lived in five African countries after Dr. Reyna’s great introduction to that continent. Dr. Sutlive taught me about the peoples and cultures of Southeast Asia, and was my advisor on my honors thesis. He was a wonderful mentor and friend. In the summer of ’73 I worked on Dr. Barka’s crew digging sites on the Yorktown battlefield and lived in an 18th century farmhouse on the battlefield with two other students – Jim Hirstein and Doug Sanford. 

When we started the Anthropology Club in the fall of ’74, we were a very eclectic and fun group of anthropology majors. We wanted to explore more questions and themes together outside the class setting. We also wanted a good excuse to party together. The one event that stood out to me was when we invited Professor Colin Turnbull to speak. The British anthropologist was then lecturing at the University of Richmond and came down for an evening during which he narrated over two hours of ethnographic film shot during his time in the Ituri Forest. A great time was had by all. 

The Anthropology Club, founding class, 1974.

The Anthropology Club, founding class, 1974. Pictured, seated: Susan Yerkes, Dave Hess, Billie Byron Busby, Laura Hillcok, Jay Orr. Standing: Ruth Ann Clarke,  Linda Lichliter, Richard Davis, Ruth Drew, Charlotte Schotzberger, Tom Langhorne, Marty Rothman, Carrie Glass, Dee Dee Bazan, Rebecca Shelton. Debbie Pulliam, Linden Matthews, Douglas Sandlord, Heggy Windsor, Jim Hirstein. Image from The Colonial Echo, 1974. 

Because I had so much undergraduate study in the four fields of anthropology, I moved quickly through my first year of graduate school at the University of Pittsburgh. After taking the doctoral comprehensive exams and securing NSF, Organization of American States, and Mellon Foundation grants for my research, I was off to Bolivia for two years of cultural ecology research in the eastern Bolivian lowland jungle, where I lived with recent migrants who came seeking new opportunities on an agricultural frontier. I returned, wrote, and defended my dissertation on adaptation by those migrants. Facing a totally dismal 1979 academic job market and having done research living at the village level in a settlement project supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), I applied for a job in that Agency’s International Development Intern program for career entry to the U.S. Foreign Service as an applied anthropologist. I started with USAID in 1980 and over the next 27 years I served in assignments in the Cote d’Ivoire, Peru, Bolivia, Washington, Guinea, India, Rwanda, and Mozambique. I worked in a variety of jobs related to agriculture, regional development, health, education, environment and natural resources management, democracy and governance, and disaster relief and reconstruction. 

I believe that the study of anthropology is a fundamental orientation to understanding human existence – it certainly was for me. Regarding my career in international development, my overall anthropology learning opened myriad perspectives in my life and my specific graduate work and doctoral research provided skills and insights that served me extremely well working for the benefit of poor people in the places that I have touched. 

I would encourage current students interested in applied anthropology to read like crazy! Get out there and experience the lives of the people that you want to help as an applied anthropologist! Peace Corps and numerous other long-term engagements are wonderful eye-opening possibilities. I firmly believe that you can only begin a career by knowing whereof you speak! Gather data, experience the world, analyze, and help! 

* response has been edited for length. 


playing frisbee, 1970s, shared with permission.

David Hess playing frisbee, 1970s, shared with permission. 

Introduction to the Anthropology Club

Introduction to the Anthropology Club. Pictured: Charlotte Schotzberger, Ruth Drew, Richard Davis. Image from The Colonial Echo, 1974.