Acclaimed CSUSM Professor Delves into Haiti and French-Jewish History
By David Ogul
She is acclaimed for her research on the French Revolution, and she teaches at Cal State San Marcos. And now Dr. Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall has been honored with the university’s top distinction, the 2014-15 Harry E. Brakebill Distinguished Professor Award, given annually to a professor for outstanding achievement in teaching, research and service.
“I try to make a difference in my students’ lives and help transform the way they view the world around them,” said Dr. Sepinwall, a Carmel Valley resident who serves as a Solana Beach school volunteer and is a member of the San Diego Jewish Film Festival committee. “This is a wonderful university and I am happy to contribute to its development.”
Students are among her biggest fans.
“Her scope of knowledge is tremendous, and her enthusiasm is unmatched,” said graduate student Frank Turner.
Former student Sarah Wolk, who is pursuing a doctorate in history at UC Riverside, noted that her “passion and enthusiasm for teaching shine through in everything she does…Professor Sepinwall applies herself wholeheartedly to her work, and her positive energy is contagious.”
Dr. Sepinwall’s interest in history began during her childhood in Pine Brook, New Jersey, when she often visited historic sites and museums in New York. Her parents, Dr. Harriet Lipman Sepinwall and Dr. Jerry Sepinwall, believed deeply in the importance of education and instilling values of social justice.
“I just grew up being very interested in the world around me,” she reflected.
But it was during her sophomore year at the University of Pennsylvania that Dr. Sepinwall’s future was sealed.
“I took a seminar on the French Enlightenment and it was fascinating,” she said. “Back then I preferred reading Newsweek to books, which I thought were old and irrelevant. But I started reading Enlightenment texts and discovered that these dead people were talking about the same issues that my friends and I talked about at night in the dorm: Is there a God? What is the best kind of government? Were women and men really different?”
In the summer after her sophomore year at Penn, Dr. Sepinwall ended up working in France, and studied at Oxford University in the fall of her junior year. She earned her Ph.D. in 1998 from Stanford University and joined the CSUSM History Department in 1999.
Just five years later she earned the President’s Award for Innovation in Teaching.
Her areas of expertise also include Haiti and French-Jewish history. She remains an in-demand speaker, who has addressed conferences across the United States and Europe, and had her work translated many times into French.
Dr. Sepinwall’s first book (The Abbé Grégoire and the French Revolution: The Making of Modern Universalism) was a biography of the French priest and revolutionary Abbé Henri Grégoire, who argued that Jews should not be oppressed and that slaves should be freed.
Her second book, which covers the history of Haiti and was published in 2013, is one of the first of its kind.
“Haiti is a fascinating and important country whose history has been forgotten,” Dr. Sepinwall said. “When the earthquake happened in 2010 (which left more than 300,000 Haitians dead and an estimated 1.5 million homeless), there was a lot of news coverage. But I was struck by how little those on TV actually knew about this country. Haitians were the first people in the New World to free themselves from slavery, and they were punished at the time by slaveholding countries. The U.S. has also intervened in Haitian politics numerous times in the last century.”
Dr. Sepinwall’s course on Haitian history was among the first offered at any North American university. Her book, Haitian History: New Perspectives, is now used at several universities in the U.S., Canada and England.
“Dr. Alyssa Sepinwall exemplifies the highest values of Cal State San Marcos and embodies what it means to be a faculty member committed to sustained excellence in teaching and enhancing student learning,” wrote CSUSM President Karen S. Haynes in honoring her with the Brakebill Award.
That commitment was reflected last fall, when Dr. Sepinwall and her family created an endowed scholarship in memory of her late father. Dr. Jerry Sepinwall, an immigrant from Canada, would become a pioneer in the field of neuropsychopharmacology and a leading researcher in the use of benzodiazepines, a class of drugs often prescribed to treat anxiety, insomnia and seizures.
Dr. Sepinwall said she is sometimes in awe of the changes that have occurred at CSUSM since she arrived here.
“It’s a tremendously more exciting place to be than when I first got here 17 years ago,” she said. “It used to be a smaller campus, a commuter campus. We would have distinguished lecturers come to speak and we would be lucky to get 10 people. That’s not the case anymore. We have so many thriving extracurricular activities and a fascinating group of students. They range from Marines who have been all over the world to first-generation college students to more mature students who didn’t have the chance to go to college when they were younger. I learn something new from them every semester.”