#CeaselessDevotion: Allison Stephens P ’11, ’13
When her high-school friends teased her that she would one day be a teacher, Allison Stephens scoffed. Today, Stephens has been teaching at Mercersburg Academy for 32 years. She is among the most recognizable faculty faces with her greying hair, colorful outfits, and sparkling laugh. Perhaps what makes her most recognizable, however, is her self-assigned role as a voice for social justice on campus. In the course of her years at Mercersburg, she has organized groups of students and faculty to travel to marches in Washington, D.C., for women’s rights on numerous occasions and, most recently, she helped organize the student-led March for Our Lives on campus. She advises not only the Women’s Activist Club but also the Rainbow Alliance, and is in the process of creating the Activism Springboard class in which students will take a close look at effective and ethical activism. Stephens is known for challenging students to engage in direct dialogue about questions of diversity and equality in and out of the classroom. In her presence, it is hard not to be reminded of what vigor and persistence can do to change the world.
Stephens was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the eldest of four in what she calls a sheltered suburban community. She credits her parents with the basic foundations for her characteristic sense of justice. Her father expected all of his children to excel not only in the classroom but also on the sports field, regardless of their gender. Her mother spent a lot of time living out the role of the homemaker and, yet, was a woman who went to school to get her MBA and her Ph.D. once her children were in school. Growing up, Stephens knew that she belonged outside of her hometown. “I had to go out and see more and live more,” she says.
Stephens went on to attend Amherst College, a pioneer as part of the first generation of women to attend the college. As she found herself facing the prejudices that came with the deeply entrenched traditions of a male-only institution, Stephens began to truly “articulate about justice,” as she puts it. During her time at Amherst, Stephens expanded her activism beyond solely advocating for equal treatment of women to include issues of race and the environment. On the day of her graduation, she wore a green armband to protest the school’s investments in Apartheid South Africa.
After college, Stephens continued to live in Massachusetts, working in retail, but she knew it wasn’t her plan for the long term. “I realized the lifestyle of campus and that kind of community was really something that I valued very highly,” she says. Ultimately, it was the community thriving at Mercersburg that brought Stephens to her first role at the school as director of annual giving. She quickly found herself drawn to the daily lives of the students, however, rather than the sometimes impersonal responsibilities of her role in development. When a one-year position opened up in the English department, Stephens, having double-majored in English and American studies, offered to step up.
“I was attracted to the opportunity to think and challenge myself as the world is changing, and the best way to do that is with young people,” she says. “I like to say my students keep me young and make me old.”
Since then, she has held positions teaching history, English, American studies, and the Quinn-Ferguson Honors Seminar. She married colleague Dave Holzwarth ’78 and raised two children on campus (Wynn Holzwarth ’11 and Zack Holzwarth ’13). While still serving the Mercersburg community, she’s also taught around the globe, including in France as part of the School Year Abroad program and in Kabul, Afghanistan, as part of the School of Leadership, Afghanistan, an Afghan-run school for girls.
Stephens constantly endeavors to foster growth not only in her students but also in herself. She seizes every opportunity to challenge herself, every chance to confront her own biases. As Stephens says, “We always say that with the opportunities to keep growing [at Mercersburg], why would we go somewhere else?”
Editor’s Note: Eliza DuBose ’20, of Rollinsville, Colorado, is a Writing Center Fellow, a Language Media Center Ambassador, and a member of Stony Batter Players.