What brought you to Willamette—and how did you come to major in English?
I came to Willamette because my favorite (math) teacher in high school, who was a Willamette alum (and married to another WU-er), encouraged me to apply. He talked about Willamette as a school full of opportunities to grow in many ways. I came to college expecting to be only a math major, but in my first semester at WU I took “Diversity in American Literature” with an English professor—and I still remember the moment I realized the potential scope of literature and of the English major. I realized for the first time that literature could speak to something necessary about the world, that it could connect me to other people, that it wasn’t simply the solitary, escapist pursuit I thought it was. That and subsequent classes taught me that the study of literature could allow me to encounter the world in relevant, meaningful ways. I expected math to be a more relevant or “useful” major, but English has helped me understand other people’s ways of seeing the world—and helped me communicate my own—in ways that mathematics never was able to.
What was it like double majoring in math and doing the right-brain, left-brain thing?
I loved being a double major. Being a math major especially helped me understand literature in different ways; in particular, it revealed the ways writers build their texts out of the structure of language—that poems, short stories, novels, and essays come from combinations of words and syllables just as things such as graphs, bridges, ferns, and clouds can be thought of as visual representations of thousands of reiterations of (often) fairly simple mathematical equations. In turn, Literary Theory revealed the philosophical underpinnings of mathematics in a way that most of my math courses didn’t or couldn’t because of time constraints.
You spent time studying in Kenya, right? What was that like—and did you do independent research there?
I spent the fall of my junior year (2009) studying development, public health, and community in Kenya through an experiential-learning based program. Study abroad experiences often inspire really bad clichés: i.e. that it’s “life-changing” and a “once in a lifetime experience.” There is some truth in both expressions—by taking classes outside of my fields of study, I learned to think about social and global problems in a different way and thus also how I think about literature. Students in the program design and carry out independent research projects during the final month of the study abroad program. Going in, I thought I’d write a project about AIDS, women’s health, something that was more health or development-related. Instead, I spent most of my time “prepping” for my research project by reading East African poetry and literature, avoiding the statistically-dense development anthologies I was supposed to be reading. I ended up researching the history and culture of matatus, the public transportation system of Nairobi, and writing poetry about the city and its matatu system.
Tell me about your senior thesis.
My senior thesis in English was Can You Love Me Not for Myself: The Struggle for Identity in Kenyan Poetry and looked at two recent works of Kenyan poetry. The two poets, Sitawa Namwalie and Mukoma wa Ngugi, both wrote collections that questioned the ability of individuals to find an identity that isn’t determined by the violence and division that surrounds them. My thesis looked at how these two collections used the concept of romantic love to illustrate that in order to form an identity that resists division and violence, individuals must create intimate connections with those who are different from them.
There’s so much I could say about my thesis, but I’ll limit myself to two major things: 1) it is a huge amount of work, and I’m really glad that I researched and wrote my thesis on texts and issues that are important to me, not only as a scholar but as a “whole person.” I was that much more invested in my work, and it helps to be invested when things, as they inevitably do, go wrong; 2) I had the best support possible from English faculty and the library staff—everyone I talked to had great ideas and encouraged me to make the project my own. My advisor was crazy smart and helped me believe I was doing novel and necessary research, which, as I think about it, is a pretty amazing experience for an undergraduate.
What are you doing now?
For two years, I worked at Thurgood Marshall Academy, a public charter high school in Washington, D.C., helping to coordinate after-school activities. I started a student-run writing center on campus, worked in the school garden, ran a tutoring program, helped find summer college-prep activities for students, and coordinated community service. I just started a new job as a Trainer at the Posse Foundation in D.C. where I'll be working with Posse scholars in high school and college to ensure that they persist in their studies and become campus leaders. I found out about Posse when Debbie Bial, Posse's president and founder, spoke at WU's 2011 commencement, and I knew then that I wanted to work there!