Brandeis Alumni, Family and Friends

The Best Four Years

Campus life, mentors, and finding identity – a lively conversation with seven Brandeis graduates (in one family!)

Four photos of members of the Coburn family
Clockwise from top left: David Coburn ’73 with wife Phyllis ’75; Marnina Cowan ’10 with husband Seth ’10 in an engagement photo; Brian Coburn ’07 with wife Yael; and Shayna Coburn ’06 with husband Avi ’04 on their first date while at Brandeis.

For the Coburns, closeness doesn’t just mean weekend calls and holiday gatherings: They are also all Brandeis graduates and live within several miles of each other. 

The family tree is a classic campus story, with each kid having followed mom and dad’s academic footsteps and three Brandeisian romances having bloomed. There are David ’73 and his wife Phyllis ’75; their sons Avi ’04, Brian ’07, and Seth ’10; Avi’s wife Shayna ’06; and Seth’s wife Marnina ’10.

On behalf of the Alumni Association, I recently caught up with the entire clan via Zoom and can attest that the only time my screen has been filled with so many smiling Brandeisians is during staff meetings. Our conversation was delightfully interactive, with thoughtful responses and cherished recollections.

What inspired you to attend Brandeis? 

Phyllis ’75: I wanted to reinvent myself at college, and Brandeis helped me discover who I really was. I learned that I didn’t need to be a whole new person, but just find the person I was already meant to become.

My parents thought it was a good fit academically and that I’d be able to come into my own if I went to a school that appreciated my Jewish background in a way our small town didn’t.

David ’73: My high school counselor suggested Brandeis. It was my first flight, coming to look at Brandeis. I visited, I liked the campus, and I got in.

Seth ’10: I felt like I would have been disowned if I didn’t attend Brandeis, though I kept an open mind to other schools. It checked off a lot of boxes and I saw that my parents had a template: find your career there and meet your wife there. 

Brandeis has a close-knit community where you feel like you’re someone, not just a sardine, not anonymous. You can establish yourself as a person and find your identity. — Seth Cowan ’10

Avi ’04: My inspiration was my parents. Unlike our mom, though, we grew up in a very Jewish community, so it was familiar in that sense.

Brian ’07: Aside from my brother and parents, I’d visited Avi when I was in high school, and I remember thinking that Brandeis met a lot of my criteria. It felt like home and it’s a great school in terms of offering good liberal arts academic education. 

Can you talk about what Brandeis means to you and why you think it has become such a meaningful part of your family over time?

Phyllis ’75: For us, the greatest meaning is that Brandeis was our love story, and it’s also the foundation of our lifelong friendships.

Avi ’04: Brandeis really has been a love story for our family. I met my future wife at orientation, and Seth met Marnina at a new student send-off event that my parents hosted.

Phyllis ’75: Another love connection is that past president Fred Lawrence was a friend of Marnina’s parents and a signer of their ketubah; he attended Marnina and Seth’s wedding, too. 

What was your experience on campus like? 

David ’73: I had a lot of good friends, social gatherings, and great professors. It was an exciting but unusual time due to world events, like the Vietnam War and Kent State shootings. There was one antiwar demonstration after another. 

Phyllis ’75: I think of how my experience was different from my children’s. When we came with Avi to enroll him, we were setting up his room and there was an incredible amount of computer equipment, like a writhing pit of black cords.

Marnina ’10: Thinking of technology, Seth and I first communicated via landline in our rooms, before cell phones.

Seth ’10: I have fond memories of campus. The mystique was that it was small. You’d always run into someone you knew. I lived in North, and getting to Marnina’s dorm was like a trip down Mt. Everest.

Marnina ’10: In the spring, everyone would be on the Great Lawn reading or at outdoor events like the Bernstein Festival of Arts. There was such a community feeling, especially as the weather warmed up.

What were your favorite classes and who were your mentors?

Brian ’07: William Kapelle, my medieval and Renaissance history professor. I joked that I majored in Kapelle. He was so much fun, I’d take six classes with him. David Hackett Fischer and Paul Jankowski for history. I was so excited to go to their classes. Most professors in that department were like mentors.           

Shayna ’06: I was a psychology major and Malcom Watson was the department chair. He said, “You want to be a psychologist? The training is hard – really hard.” I thought, okay, but I had no idea – but I went on to become a psychologist. Joe Cunningham, too, and Leslie Zebrowitz’s Face Perception Lab, which was a great example of Brandeis’ open opportunities.         

Phyllis ’75: My professor, Steve Whitfield, PhD’72, (the Max Richter Professor of American Civilization, Emeritus) became a lifelong friend. He came to Brandeis with a newly minted PhD and his classes were incredibly rigorous and interesting, and he held his students to very high standards. 

David ’73: I took Music Appreciation and absolutely loved it – I fell in love with Beethoven in that course. Same with the Art Appreciation course, just phenomenal.                                                                       

Phyllis and David, in 2013, you established the Coburn Family Scholarship Endowment Fund. What inspired such a generous gesture?

Phyllis ’75: College has become an unaffordable dream for so many, especially the kind of education Brandeis offers. We want to help make this great liberal arts education available to others, and to pass our Brandeis experience on is really a privilege. We want to leave a legacy of philanthropy and supporting important issues.

David ’73: The fact that all our kids went to Brandeis had a lot to do with it. I saw the benefit of the next generation, and I was inspired to help others down the road.

Can you talk about your volunteerism at Brandeis?

Phyllis ’75: I worked with the Waltham Group through my four years at Brandeis. Then for about 15 years, I was head of the Washington D.C. area Alumni Admissions Council, president of the Alumni Club there for a term, and continued to be active as a volunteer, conducting off-campus admissions interviews for many years, until Avi applied.

David ’73: I used to volunteer at local schools in Waltham. We’ve held alumni gatherings in our home and I’ve hosted alumni networking events at my law firm.

Any wisdom you’d like to share with current students?

Brian ’07: Enjoy it and take advantage of all opportunities. There’s so much to do on campus and off, in Waltham and Boston. Classes, groups, campus activities. You’re only there for four years, so take the time to relish as much as you can.

Marnina ’10: Brandeis is a place where you can really be yourself and grow, so find the classes and experiences that enable you to be yourself. Give back to the community, too. Be creative and, if you want to be a leader, seek out opportunities.

Shayna ’10: Make it your own with extracurriculars or leadership opportunities, and take every opportunity to do things you’re interested in. When I proposed starting an ice skating club, Brandeis gave us a small budget, and once a week we’d pile into cars and go skate. 

Seth ’10: Gain comfort in feeling uncomfortable when trying new things. Seek out good teachers and sample disciplines. I was giddy – never said no to any opportunity. I would find myself on a stage in a hip-hop show or at a museum looking at Greek statues. Find new parts of yourself.

Phyllis ’75: Yes, be open to everything, including new people. It’s a learning experience opening up on so many levels, academically, socially, emotionally. 

David ’73: It’s really the best four years of your life.

Any other thoughts about Brandeis that you’d like to share?

Marnina ’10: I was the last Hebrew major ever at Brandeis, and it was critical for my career as a Hebrew teacher. Brandeis led me to expand my skills, to the point that I wrote a 50-page thesis in Hebrew and did my research in Hebrew. I needed to be challenged and, as a first year, I was in class with seniors and grad students. 

The Hiatt Career Center was a huge support for me – I’ve spoken with advisors and continue to utilize it. The World of Work internship funding program helped me do an internship working on Arab-Israeli relations and I had a job before I graduated.

David ’73: This was fun – I learned a lot about my kids that I didn’t know before.

About the Author

Anne Lawrence Guyon
Anne Lawrence Guyon

Annie is senior development writer in advancement communications. Before joining Brandeis in January 2022, she was a writer at Dartmouth College. As a longtime freelance journalist and radio commentator, she has covered art, culture, travel, and education for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, Art in America, Art New England, NPR, and many other outlets. She is the lucky mom of two great kids.