2nd Quarter, 2007
Liberal Arts Scholarship Winner
“A StraightForward Media Liberal Arts Scholarship would help me participate in a very important international literary event (Synapsis: School of Comparative Studies, held in Bologna, Italy) where my application has been accepted. In September 2007, there will be a very prestigious graduate seminar taught by Dr. Hayden White (Stanford University) on the structure of scandal in literature. This intensive one-week seminar could be very helpful in terms of my own research for my dissertation, which I’m about to start writing in the fall. During this event, I would attend both this seminar and other lectures by highly renowned scholars from all over the world. Thus, this event would also be a great opportunity for me to make professional contacts for the future.”
A Portion of Maria’s Winning Essay:
When I first told my parents that I wanted to get a degree in Comparative Literature, they try to discourage me, warning me about the fact that “I would never get a job.” Fortunately, at eighteen, I had the clarity of mind and the necessary self-knowledge to realize that I had to study what I liked and what I felt I was good at if I ever expected to experience some sort of personal fulfilment.
Following the “you’ll never get a job” statement, my parents confessed that they also had two other major concerns: on one hand, they had no idea what comparative literature really was, and on the other hand, they could not understand my interest in such an “obscure” field.
In Argentina, my home country, at a moment when most of my friends were heading towards careers in law, medicine, and business, I was deciding to pursue a liberal arts major whose existence they even ignored. Even today, most people I get to meet are in the same situation my parents were nine years ago. They don’t know what it is that I study, and they wonder why I chose this.
Answering this last question is not easy; whenever I think about it, my thoughts take me back to my childhood, my teenage years, and, more specifically, to the French poet Victor Hugo and the English writer Emily Brontë. Literature has always been around me, even before I knew what the word meant.
When I was little, my parents were very worried about my health because they thought I had hearing problems; I would never turn around whenever they’d call me. “–Maria! Maria!,” they’d shout out, and very often they would get no response from me. The truth was, as doctors and psychologists finally agreed, that I was too immersed in my own thoughts and imaginary world to care about whatever was going on around me.
And I remember those moments perfectly; I never needed toys, which my parents couldn’t afford at the time, nor did I ever need anyone to give me suggestions as to what to play with. I had a fantasy world of my own, where everything was possible and where I could picture all kinds of stories taking place. Any given situation, or no situation at all would prompt my imagination.
One day I realized, when I started to go to school, that some people devoted their lives to writing down such stories and occurrences; they were called writers, and what they produced was literature. Thus, I realize, as I think about this, that literature has been a part of my life from the very beginning; it has always been there for me, waiting to be discovered and explored.
As a teenager, like most people that age, I became very rebellious, idealistic, energetic and sometimes angry. Therefore, I continued to escape everyday reality very often, but this time, I chose novels and poetry as my ideal means of exploring other worlds and different perspectives on life itself. During my high school years, I was extremely drawn to nineteenth-century literature, especially to British and French Literature. My first great literary loves were the French poet, novelist and politician Victor Hugo, and the great English woman writer Emily Brontë, who, at the beginning of her career, would write under a male pseudonym in order have her work published in the patriarchal society in which she lived.
I don’t even remember how I ended up having a copy of Les Miserables and Wuthering Heights, but, what I do remember is the devotion both books inspired in me. They became like religious works for me. I would read and reread their pages every night and highlight my favorite passages.
My obsession with Victor Hugo and Emily Brontë kept growing, and my love for their work led me to save money to afford a trip to France and England, which my parents fortunately allowed and supported. When I came back from my trip, I had only one idea in my mind: I had to learn French to read Victor Hugo in the original, and I had to study abroad.
Being in France and England, so far from my home country, had made me feel somewhat estranged, out of place; my perspectives had shifted, I had been the “other,” the “foreigner,” the one who wasn’t necessarily known and pre-defined.
This feeling, which I know could repel others, I found it most pleasing; it provided me with the perfect state of mind to explore the world around me. However, this time, it was the non-fictional world that I was interested in. Thus, I desired to exploit my newly found sense of freedom and energy to recreate myself and find out who and what I wanted to be. Over the years, many of the answers that I was seeking would come to me through the study of the intricate relationship between the world of fiction and the real world.
I was accepted at the American University of Paris, where I majored in Comparative Literature and took a minor in French Studies. I was fortunate enough to get a scholarship. One of my strengths, I believe, was that I spoke English and German, which I had learned during my high school years. Indeed, studying languages is fundamental in my field as we must read all books in the original language.
Being able to understand other cultures is also key; in fact, I believe that it is necessary to be familiar with the context in which a book is written if one intends to analyze it in depth. I picked up French very fast, and I also improved my Italian, the language of my grandparents, who emigrated from Naples to Buenos Aires at the beginning of the 20th century.
I had the opportunity to travel a lot around Europe and made good friends from all over the world: Greece, El Salvador, the US, Mexico, Turkey, India, France, England, Puerto Rico…When I graduated, I was confident that my studies and my multicultural experience abroad had provided me with very useful skills, such as a strong capacity for critical reflection, as well as analytical, problem solving, and communication skills. All of these skills, I realized later, are key to survival in any field and the basis for success at any job. I understood then that very few people were as privileged as I was.
My first step after graduation was applying for internships at publishing houses. My application was selected, according to the editor, because of my strong background in world literature and my language skills. I got a job at one of the top French publishing houses, which was an extremely rewarding experience which allowed me to meet authors and see how my field was “behind the scenes.”
When my internship was over, I decided to apply to grad school to further improve my language skills and get the necessary qualifications to work as a translator. I got a scholarship to pursue a post-graduate degree at the University of Bradford, in England, which, ironically, is located in West Yorkshire, fifteen minutes from Haworth, the Victorian village where the Brontë sisters grew up. Of course I paid the due respect to this happy coincidence by engaging in several literary peregrinations to this town, and by becoming a member of the Brontë society, which became my first professional affiliation.
When I graduated, I still didn’t feel that my studies were over. Much to my parents’ surprise, I wanted to study more. The truth is that my experience as a student and the several part-time jobs I had while I studied led me to believe that I was to devote the rest of my life to a greater goal that involved doing something for the benefit of other people beside myself. Thus, my now evolved feeling of rebellion and desire to change the world crystallized in my vocation for teaching.
This is how I decided that I wanted to become a professor of Comparative Literature, which my current university nicely defines as “the discipline of studying literature transnationally, sometimes postnationally– across political boundaries, time periods, languages, genres, and across the lines of demarcation between literature and other cultural productions.” My advisor at The American University of Paris encouraged me to apply to PhD programs in the United States.
As an undergraduate, I had had a very rewarding experience in this country when I spent a summer at the University of California at Berkeley taking a course on the Mystic Tradition in World Literature, which I greatly enjoyed.
I decided to follow my professor’s advice, and that’s how I ended up at Penn State University, where I’m currently completing a PhD in Comparative Literature under the guidance of excellent scholars and extremely supportive professors. Looking back, I realize that I have lived my entire life as a comparatist, learning five different languages, living in five different countries, having friends and colleagues from all over the world, understanding and experiencing other cultures and sometimes partially making them my own, and finally, reading literature, nurturing myself with the greatest masterpieces ever written, and having the desire to share them with others in order to discuss and divulge the values and ideas that are necessary if we, as human beings, intend to live in harmony, improve ourselves, and change the world around us. We can all make a difference like other writers and historical figures have done in the past.
My role as a teacher will be to lead every one of my students so that one day they may realize what they can do to make a difference in their own particular way. Faith, humility, and perseverance are the values I want to teach through the study of literature; they are also the ones that Emily Bronte’s poetry often invokes: No coward soul is mine, No trembler in the world’s storm-troubled sphere: I see Heaven’s glories shine, And faith shines equal, arming me from fear.
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