Natalie Burack, one of our department work-study students, recently interviewed Christine Kelly, a member of the Messiah College History Department class of 2011, on her experience in graduate school. Enjoy!–JF
Natalie: What grad school are you attending and which program are you studying?
Christine: I attend George Washington University, reading for an M.A. in 20th Century United States History.
Natalie: What made you decide that grad school was right for you?
Christine: My decision to attend graduate school was one long in the making. Throughout my time at Messiah I explored a number of academic interests that could have led to a variety of career paths. I considered high school teaching, law and politics but ultimately decided to enter history at the professional level. Without entirely realizing it until my senior year, my time as an undergraduate history major had developed within me a strong appreciation for historical thinking and a love for the discipline that I did not want to lose in my post-graduate life. I knew that if I attended graduate school, I would be able to immerse myself even more thoroughly than before in learning historical content, refining my thinking and arguing abilities, and reflecting seriously on the weight and meaning of the past. I’m also compelled by a life of teaching and scholarship, and graduate school is the path to that end. Finally, I had a number of important influences in my life – family, friends, and Messiah faculty – that encouraged me to consider graduate school. All of these things together informed my decision, and I’m confident that it was the right one.
Natalie: What was the hardest part of the admissions process?
Christine: I found the admissions process to be a difficult one, mainly because I was uncomfortable with the uncertainty of whether I had a future at any of my potential programs. But beyond my attitude, I vividly recall the many frustrations I felt writing my statement of intent. In an application for graduate school in the humanities, a statement of intent is a short essay outlining an applicant’s academic and professional goals, connecting them to the strengths of her prospective program. It involves making a clear argument about why an applicant is a good fit for her program of interest and is the best opportunity to make one’s voice heard to an admissions committee. It involves a great deal of delicate writing, which is why the process can be so difficult. Finishing my statement of intent was undoubtedly an important milestone in the process.
Natalie: How do you think Messiah has prepared you for grad school?
Christine: I’ve found a Messiah College education to be an excellent one in preparation for graduate school. Messiah faculty [members] are committed to teaching students how to think. The idea sounds elementary, but to really know how to think well – to make clear, founded arguments, to read source material in history with a critical eye, to compare authors’ evidence and decide which is more compelling – all of this involves skill that is years in the making. And it’s a testament to the work of many good teachers. As I read and evaluate arguments and ideas from historians each week in my program, I draw from experiences I had in the classroom where professors challenged me to think harder, or differently, or creatively, or more precisely about the material. It’s the ability to think which allows me to read effectively and conduct myself appropriately in reading-based graduate seminars now. And given the high standards of my grad professors, I’m awfully grateful that I entered my program prepared!
Natalie: Future plans?
Christine: Following my Master’s degree I hope to attain a Ph.D. in my field. One bright morning perhaps, after what will be easily six or seven more years of graduate school, I’ll be able to teach, research and write as a historian. Since that day remains far off, for now my focus is on finishing my daily readings, a reality that’s daunting enough!
Natalie: Any advice for Messiah students about applying to schools, getting grants, choosing a school, things to do while at Messiah, etc?
Christine: I have two pieces of advice for Messiah students preparing for their futures: first, seek clarity of mind, and second, make the most of knowing your professors. As a Messiah undergraduate, like many other students, I was extraordinarily busy. My senior year I attempted to balance several jobs and co-curricular activities in addition to keeping up with my church and friendship obligations. The result was an inability to reflect calmly and deeply about my future – there simply wasn’t time. Although I don’t question my decision to come to graduate school, since I’ve been here I changed my area of historical specialization to pursue what, if I allowed myself the room to think about it, I could have easily determined to be more appropriate for me as an undergraduate. The change wasn’t dramatic, but it matters. And it matters that the central purpose of my education, to think well, was sidestepped my senior year because of so many responsibilities that have since become memories. Pursue clarity of mind above busyness and you won’t regret it. It may seriously influence your future. More pragmatically, I also advise students to take advantage of getting to know their professors. Messiah faculty can provide a wealth of advice about graduate schools appropriate for student goals and interests, what to expect once in graduate school, and how to write an application effectively, among a whole host of other things. Since graduate schools are typically large universities, it will not be as easy to interact with professors there. Getting to know faculty now will be an invaluable resource to draw from later.
Natalie: Favorite memory of Messiah?
Christine: I have many fond memories of Messiah, but one in particular comes to mind that may be pertinent to all students considering what comes next. The summer before my senior year I had a job on campus, and one evening I ventured off on my own to a spot underneath an old tree by the Yellow Breeches. It was a marvelous evening, with just the right amount of sunlight touching the river, making it sparkle against the green grass and bright red of the covered bridge. I was thinking seriously about my future and the felt the twin burdens upon me of both the weight of the unknown and the grief that comes with recognizing the transitory nature of the present. I had a book with me written by one of my favorite theologians, Father Kallistos Ware, and opened unintentionally to the following:
“If growing up is a form of death, then so is parting, the separation from a place or person that we have come to love: partir, c’est mourir un peu. Yet such separations are a necessary element in our continuing growth into maturity. Unless we have sometimes the courage to leave our familiar surroundings, to part with our existing friends and to forge new links, we shall never realize our true potentiality. By hanging on too long to the old, we are refusing the invitation to discover what is new. In the words of Cecil Day Lewis: ‘Selfhood begins with a walking away. / And love is proved in the letting go.’”
I went away that evening with tears in my eyes. The moment was sweet, and the truth conveyed even sweeter. It’s important to love Messiah while you have it, but don’t be afraid to welcome the future when it arrives…
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