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Alumnae/i: Life After Vassar

We recently asked former Medieval & Renaissance Studies (MRST) majors and correlates to tell us about their careers and further studies after graduating from Vassar. Graduates ranging from the class of ’72, when MRST was an independent major, to 2016 generously responded, sharing their experiences in a wide variety of fields. Many alums are working in higher education, museums, or libraries, while many others forged different paths. MRST alums work in government, business, healthcare, publishing, and the arts—as doctors and nurses, architects, lawyers, writers, nonprofit administrators, musicians—and other exciting careers.

By choosing MRST, these students followed their passions while developing skills that would serve them well in life after Vassar. Working closely with our faculty, they developed intellectual rigor, analytical mastery, and inquisitiveness about challenging sources and connections between different events and ideas. They also developed advanced research and writing skills.

As one former major who works for the government in Washington D.C. attests, “I came to MRST to better understand the world. I have always been interested in the contact between civilizations, whether through commerce, religion, migration, scholarship, art or force of arms. I continue to benefit from this foundation in my current work, which is focused on foreign policy and economics.”

Here is a selection of alumni responses, sorted by the fields in which they work. We are grateful to all of our former students for taking the time to share their experiences with us:

The Arts: Fashion, Music, and Writing

Emily Levin (Major, 1989) Writer of Creative Non-Fiction

“I liked the connections MRST made across the many wonderful departments at Vassar. At the time, I did not know my strength as a writer would be the ability to make connections between seemingly disparate events to create something new based on that insight. The opportunity to look in depth at such a rich time period through different lenses is rare and I think it is more important now than ever since we as a society are in information overload. The ability to spot trends, ideas, themes, and recurring issues is vital to us in this century. And personally, I got a really amazing husband (Mike Levin, ’90) out of my major as well.”

Peter Walker (Correlate, 2009) Freelance Musician

“I was drawn to medieval studies by a strong interest in medieval literature, music, and history. Thanks to the medieval studies correlate, I was able to study all three, including Old English, Latin, Dark Ages History, Early British Literature, Sacred Art of the Middle Ages, Detectives in the Archive, and Music History. These have all been very useful to me in my career as a freelance musician specializing in medieval music and provided me with the tools to become a scholar as well as a performer.”

Cecilia Cholst (Major, 2011)

“I loved that the department constantly sought to dismantle the presumed white supremacist narrative of the medieval and Renaissance eras, encouraging us to recast these time periods in intersectional lights. As my college career progressed and I found myself becoming more interested in the fashion industry, the then-program coordinator, Karen Roberts, encouraged me to take independent study courses in fashion history and design, which helped greatly in my application to fashion school.”

Katherine Gripp (Correlate, 2013) Communications Manager, National Novel Writing Month

“Honestly, I first came to MRST because I was interested in learning the real history that has inspired the world-building for so many of the fantasy novels I love. My current job is soliciting, editing, and creating all the social media content for NaNoWriMo, a nonprofit that encourages people all over the world to tell their stories and identify as authors. It’s great to be able to immerse myself in other people’s worlds and stories and to be able to help them develop their talents as writers and creators.”

Business and Finance

Carolyn McDonough (Major, 1986) Digital Media Web Producer, Cultureartmedia.com

“I was brought to the MRST major by its multi-disciplinary and interdepartmental nature, which allowed me to combine History, Italian, French, and Art History without having to choose. It helped me receive a post-grad Fellowship to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, Italy where I continued my research on the 16th Century Venetian Courtesan, the topic of my Vassar thesis, as well as land an editorial position with L’Europa newsweekly magazine published by Rizzoli Peridici. After receiving my M.A. in Media Studies, I combined my undergrad and grad degrees through authoring my most recent academic venture as an Independent Researcher, titled The Digital Aura: Selfie & Renaissance Gaze Shift (2015/16). The skills provided by this major are research, discernment in writing, as well as a grasp on the Classical past. The insights have been countless.”

Deborah Mitchell (Correlate, 2004)

“I earned a correlate without consciously trying; there were so many courses across many different disciplines that piqued my interest. The standouts were the team-taught courses (Crossroads of the Mediterranean and Detectives in the Archives). While my coursework didn’t lead to my current career, it certainly helped to instill my love of travel and the arts. Perhaps most relevant in today’s political climate, it taught me to read closely and skeptically, always considering the source and the author’s motivations.”

Anonymous (Correlate, 2006)

“I came to the MRST correlate as an English major, after starting with Victorian Studies. I found I kept going back in time, wanting to understand the relationships between various movements—in short, trying to answer the question of how or why a work ultimately emerges. In addition to satisfying my intellectual curiosity, the roster of classes was appealing as were the professors teaching them.

In terms of career path, among other things, MRST gave me an appreciation for the materiality of texts. I now work for a rare book, manuscripts, and archives dealer and while my focus is currently on 20th and 21st-century literature, at Vassar I had the chance to work with medieval manuscripts and explore areas like paleography. My engagement with rare books initially stemmed from this historical perspective, but luckily I was able to follow it from illuminated manuscripts and incunables up through the Industrial Revolution and well through the era of born-digital! Overall the MRST department was great and thinking back… now I’m fantasizing about afternoon art history lectures at Vassar… I wish I could return!”

Higher Education and Graduate Study

Alison Smith (Major, 1977) Prof. of History, Wagner College

“I discovered the Renaissance in a course with Ben Kohl my freshman year and was completely hooked. I planned to be a History major when I arrived at Vassar, but the appeal of an interdisciplinary major was irresistible. Vassar’s Med-Ren faculty gave me enormous support and intellectual attention during my years there. I think the most exciting aspects of the Med-Ren studies program were the deeply felt cooperation among the faculty and their wonderful personal commitment to guiding the students who shared their enthusiasms for the period. I’ve returned to campus many times for Med-Ren events and have always been impressed by this spirit of generosity and good cheer that drives both the faculty and the students in the program—really a remarkable fellowship!”

Michael Levin (Major, 1990) Assoc. Prof. of History, University of Akron

“The interdisciplinary approach was exactly what I was looking for in a major. I use the same approach in my research and teaching. I also got a very nice side benefit—I married another MRST major! (Emily Powell, 1989)”

Jennifer Higginbotham (Major, 1999) Assoc. Prof. of English, Ohio State University

“Medieval & Renaissance Studies offered a genuinely multidisciplinary experience that developed a depth and breadth of knowledge of pre-modern history and culture. I have gone on to specialize in early modern English literature, but the transnational aspects of the major have opened up opportunities that I would never have had otherwise. I recently taught a study abroad class on literary representations of Greece in which my students engaged with the kinds of connections between art, literature, and history that MRST enabled. I have always been grateful that Vassar offered the major and that I had the chance to integrate so many disciplinary approaches into my studies.”

Laura Michele Diener (Major, 2000) Assoc. Prof., Dept. of History and Director of Women Studies, Marshall University

“The classes I took as a Medieval & Renaissance Studies major at Vassar introduced me to amazing, powerful, and mysterious people, books, and ideas which have continued to fascinate me. ‘Medieval and Renaissance Women’ with Karen Robertson was the most important class I took at Vassar. I teach a similar class to my own students, and I still have my original copies of the books she assigned! Margery Kempe, Christine de Pisan, Heloise, Abelard, and so many others became the reason I decided to be a professional historian. Because of the interdisciplinary nature of the Vassar Medieval & Renaissance Studies program, I received a firm grounding in Latin, Italian, Middle English, art history, literature, and history, all of which prepared me thoroughly for graduate school.”

Maeve Doyle (Major, 2007) Lecturer, Bryn Mawr

“I found my way into Medieval & Renaissance Studies via the course catalog. Looking down the list of courses, I found I wanted to take as many of them as I could! The variety of courses was especially exciting—I took classes in French, History, and History of Art. I took a course in Vassar’s Special Collections and a course in which we made medieval tapestries. The interdisciplinary approach to studying the Middle Ages gave me insight into how scholars with different training approached similar problems and questions. This mental flexibility was inspiring and taught me to be flexible in my own researches and problem-solving. My dual degree from Vassar in Medieval & Renaissance Studies and Art History prepared me well for a graduate career studying medieval art history. The class in Special Collections inspired my love of the history of the book and provided the foundation for my scholarly focus on illuminated medieval manuscripts.”

Hannah Fritschner (Major, 2010) Assistant Director, Select Study Abroad

“Almost every class I took as an MRST major encouraged me to go to the source, and it’s one of the most important things I’ve ever learned. As a graduate student, lecturer, and informed citizen, it is a vital skill to have—the ability to start with an unfiltered source and apply my own research skills and independent thought to come to my own conclusions. The MRST major also made me consider the interrelatedness of history, art and architecture, religion, music, literature, etc., to get a well-rounded view of a society (past or present). Plus it taught me that I can do what I love!”

Gwendolyn Collaco (Major, 2011) Graduate Student, Harvard University

“I was drawn to the MRST major after taking ‘Detectives in the Archive,’ a course taught in Special Collections of Main Library. It was such a treat to work hands-on with medieval manuscripts in my first year of college instead of experiencing them only as slides in a PowerPoint. After getting a taste of the interdisciplinary approaches to these objects from various professors that led the lessons, I knew I wanted to pursue the major. I felt as though I was getting a far more holistic view of a time period than I would from a standard history major. The program was also flexible enough for me to explore other areas that I would never have touched otherwise, including courses on Islamic Sufism and Old English.”

This interdisciplinary approach has certainly carried me through my graduate studies since then. I’m currently doing my PhD at Harvard’s joint program in Middle Eastern Studies and History of Art and Architecture, focusing on Ottoman painting. I originally found my area of specialty at Vassar in Prof. Bisaha’s course on Constantinople/Istanbul and was lucky enough to explore the topic further during grad school. If it hadn’t been for that course, I would not be traveling next year for my research fellowship to Turkey and to see collections across Europe. Whether I end up curating museum collections or teaching at a university, I know I’ll still use many of the skills that I first cultivated at Vassar. In fact, much of the teaching I’ve done so far has drawn substantially on the examples set by the professors in the MRST program.”

Lily Elbaum (Major, 2016) Graduate Student, University of Toronto

“I became an MRST major after some trial and error, and it ended up being the best decision I could have made. The flexible requirements allowed me to pursue interests in several areas of study, which would not have been possible with a different major. The requirement to work across disciplines gave me experience researching and writing in several fields, which was very useful when I began graduate study. My MRST degree gave me a solid knowledge base to work from when I began a Master’s degree in Medieval Studies, and the thesis provided excellent preparation for writing long research papers. The skills and experience I gained as an MRST major will remain useful as I continue forward in academia.”

Information Technology and Engineering

Anonymous (Major, 2002) Program Manager

“I think the most useful thing I got out of the MRST major was the ability to take information from not only various sources but even from completely different disciplines and blend them together into a coherent whole. Vassar also helped me be a fast, fluent writer, which has served me very well in the working world, especially working with engineers, for whom that isn’t a primary skill set.”

Law andForeign Policy

Anonymous (Major, 1997)

“I came to MRST to better understand the world. I have always been interested in the contact of civilizations, whether through commerce, religion, migration, scholarship, art or force of arms. I continue to benefit from this foundation in my current work, which is focused on foreign policy and economics.”

Anonymous (Major, 2012)

“I became an MRST major because I had taken a lot of the courses that formed the basic building blocks of the curriculum—Italian, Art History, and Karen Robertson’s Shakespeare class. What’s more, I discovered I really liked the area! Medieval & Renaissance Studies helped teach me all the basic skills necessary to succeed as a lawyer—careful research, good writing, and attention to detail.”

Library and Museum Work

Karen Nipps (Major, 1979) Head of Rare Books Team, Houghton Library, Harvard

“I love history of all sorts, so it was an easy choice. The most valuable skills I acquired were critical thinking and good research skills. This has been an asset for my career as a rare books librarian.”

Shelley Sullivan (Major, 1989) Manager, Boulder Public Library

“Medieval & Renaissance Studies was a major that allowed me to concentrate on my existing passion for medieval and Renaissance history along with my burgeoning interests in literature and Romance languages that developed at Vassar. This major, as well as the passion of the professors and my cohort, fostered my understanding that history does not evolve without correlating developments in language, literature, music, etc.-and vice versa. This interdisciplinary approach to study and ultimately understanding is something I carry with me today and assists me in looking at our world with a keen and thoughtful perspective.”

Catherine Hamaker (Major, 1992) Exhibit Developer, Children’s Museum of Indianapolis

“I majored in MRST because I really loved the idea of an interdisciplinary major (that wasn’t as common a thing in the 80s, and I hadn’t thought of it as a possibility when I was in high school). I had always been interested in medieval art and lit, so by the time I was a sophomore at Vassar I’d already taken a number of classes that counted for the major and I thought, why not? I eventually went on to get an MA in Medieval British History from Loyola, Chicago, and then an MA in Museum Studies from Indiana University, which led me to my current job. I’d say that Med-Ren, in addition to having a lot of really fun and interesting classes, gave me a very strong background in research, identifying and using primary sources, and academic writing. All of these things helped me succeed in my two subsequent degrees and are relevant to my work where I develop exhibit content for kids and families in museums.”

Chandra Obie (Correlate, 2005) Textile Conservator, Cincinnati Museum

“I was interested in old art, especially when it used textiles as a medium. So medieval and Renaissance embroideries and tapestries were the draw. I used my correlate to support my application to graduate school for textile conservation.”

Medicine

Dr. Gale Justin (Major, 1972) Director of Instructional Technology, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai

“Before there was a Medieval & Renaissance Studies Major, I was an Independent Major in Medieval & Renaissance Studies. I had always loved Shakespeare and medieval history and I came to Vassar with a burning desire to know the roots of that culture. At Vassar, I got my first in-depth look into Beowulf—a lifelong passion—beside Anglo-Saxon and linguistics students. That unique seminar was brought together early mornings by the brilliant Julia McGrew, in the picturesque, but freezing, tower over the front gate. Other amazing faculty members changed my life as well. Richard Pommer allowed me to take the principles of contemporary architecture and city planning back into the Middle Ages to explore that period in a way that few others were doing at the time. That work made me interesting enough to get an offer for a Fulbright to England. I ended up taking a University Fellowship at Yale Medieval Studies after graduation.

I am now the Director of Instructional Technology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. It may seem a distant landscape from MRST, but it brings me great satisfaction to make a contribution in communicating medical and scientific ideas and knowledge through methodologies that are innovative, interactive and collaborative. The subject matter is quite different but the art of understanding and synthesizing methods and meaning is very closely related to what I worked on at Vassar. Every day I use skills I honed at Vassar and am often reminded of studies I first initiated there.”

Paul Lantos (Correlate, 1996) Physician, Duke University School of Medicine

“As a pre-med science major, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to devote my non-science time to Medieval & Renaissance Studies. It was very important to me to concentrate this time on a second area of study. There were surprising parallels between science coursework and MRST—in both there was an intensive emphasis on analytical skills and writing, and these skills complemented and reinforced one another. Throughout my medical and academic career since, I’ve never lost sight of how our cultural legacy is inseparable from modern society.”

Devon Roberts (Major, 2000) Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner, Boston VA

“I chose Old English for my Vassar language requirement, fell in love with dead languages, and chose a Medieval Studies concentration. I had a Classics correlate. I loved the three years of learning at Vassar and went JYA to London to learn Medieval Latin, Old Norse and pursue specialty classes not available at Vassar. From my undergrad degree, I went on to work as a Business Analyst at State Street Global Advisors for 4 years, then went to Yale School of Nursing and completed my Master’s of Science in Nursing.

I believe my Medieval Studies training informs my understanding of the human condition, human suffering and human achievement against all odds. I find these themes every day in my service of patients suffering from mental illness and addiction. I am sure my studies with dead languages and Latin helped aid my acquisition of medical language required for Advanced Practice Nursing. I credit Dr. Mark Amodio and Dr. Karen Robertson for inspiring me academically and supporting my studies. I will always cherish my MRST background even though I didn’t pursue an academic career. It’s given me a rich understanding of the world through history, mythology, religion, and literature. If my career path is a testament to anything, it is that the Medieval Studies undergraduate degree never held me back from pursuing differing career/academic goals.”

Non-Profit Work

Eva Dolgin (Correlate, 2002) Deputy Program Officer, My Sister’s Place, Inc.

“As a Women’s Studies major, I had the opportunity to take a course examining the representation and writing of women in the Med/Ren periods. This course opened up a field of study previously not considered, much to my delight. Many of my courses and thesis project done in conjunction with the Med-Ren program were highlights of my Vassar experience! My time in the Vassar Medieval & Renaissance Studies program deepened my critical thought and analytical skills, examining text & context, and allowed me to engage deeply with connecting the possibilities of past, present, and future. These skills of critical examination fostered by the Med-Ren program are used each and every day in my work as an administrator/leader in a multi-million dollar social service organization. Such deeply ingrained approaches support my roles as a program developer, evaluator, and innovator, and they feed my ability to navigate an array of grant and other collaborative projects. Truly, my connections to those women’s words read in my first semester sophomore year are as vibrant now as they were then.”

Liz Schwartz (Major, 2006) Communications Manager, St. Boniface Haiti Foundation

“I was interested in a wide variety of history-related subjects (history, art history, classics, and gender studies). Freshman year I took Ancient Greek and got interested in the educated women of the ancient and medieval Greek-speaking worlds. I also took a freshman writing seminar on medieval history where I wrote a paper on Boudica, and I was hooked. MRST was a great way to be able to major in all of the things I was interested in and to look at a period of history through a variety of lenses. I have since worked for several nonprofit and consulting organizations, mostly focusing on digital communications, and how to tell stories effectively in a way that moves people to act. My MRST training has remained relevant and useful, despite the fact that people never fail to be surprised (and then often impressed) when I tell them what I majored in. All of the Vassar departments I worked in (particularly History, but Classics and Art as well) had a strong focus on going to the primary sources and digging into the many angles on the truth to try to tell a coherent and insightful story about the past. That way of thinking and writing has been invaluable in my career.”