Sonja O’Donnell has taught English and philosophy at Deerfield since 2000. She has spent the last 18 years immersing herself in the lives of Deerfield students as an academic advisor, head swim coach, assistant crew coach, hall resident, Feminism Club advisor, literary and arts magazine Albany Road advisor, and debate and public speaking coach.
Ms. O’Donnell has taught several different courses during her time here. In addition to teaching 10th grade English, she created the much-beloved Love Stories and City Lights senior English electives. For nearly 16 years, she has also co-taught the spring elective Existentialism with her spouse, philosophy teacher Michael O’Donnell.
Ms. O’Donnell described her duty to students as a teacher outside of the classroom: “There is no difference in being a coach or in being at a Dining Hall table, having students over to your home or being in the classroom. As a teacher at Deerfield, you are in this unique position to be able to discover and understand [students’] lives as multidimensional, indeed, as fully human, and to facilitate the integration of that knowledge into a meaningful existence both here and beyond.”
Kiana Rawji ’19, Editor-in-Chief of Albany Road, attested to the profound impact that Ms. O’Donnell has had on her students, stating, “She teaches students to ask questions even when she knows we won’t be answering them anytime soon. … She has this ability to make you feel so disillusioned with the world around you by helping you realize the problems that exist there, but at the same time she makes you feel so empowered to change things.”
Ms. O’Donnell also elaborated on her role as the advisor to both Feminism Club and Albany Road, saying “I believe in student groups being run by students; I’m there to facilitate.”
Valentina Connell ‘16 asked Ms. O’Donnell to serve as the original advisor to the Feminism Club by Valentina Connell ‘16. Since then, she has continued to support the Feminism Club and its students and even facilitated a 2018 Martin Luther King Jr. day workshop on the #MeToo movement.
Under the advising of Ms. O’Donnell for the past two years, Albany Road underwent significant changes, expanding the size and format of its publication, and holding new contests and events for literature and the arts.
One of these changes is the blackout poetry contest that launched in fall 2017 after Ms. O’Donnell suggested the idea to Rawji and Managing Editor Johnny Xu ‘18. Ms. O’Donnell has also opened her home for Albany Road Coffeehouses, a student experience that was revived under the leadership of Lucy Beimfohr ‘17.
These events were not the first time Mr. and Ms. O’Donnell opened their home to Deerfield students. They served as hall residents in Shumway for 13 years. After they moved into Nims House on the corner of Main and Memorial Streets, they never ceased to welcome students.
Ms. O’Donnell recounted, “Ever since we came back from sabbatical four years ago, we’ve had an open house on Wednesday evenings, just as we did in the dorm.”
She added that she loves “getting students together to share their art, to share their music, to share their voices.”
Heather Liske, a teacher in the English Department, said that Ms. O’Donnell has left a profound mark on the Deerfield community: “Deerfield is losing a passionate teacher and dynamic thinker; we’re losing a dear friend and colleague. Sonja has been here long enough that when she leaves, she takes with her part of Deerfield’s institutional memory.”