My older sister has always been something of a guiding light for me. She is a person whose example drives my ambitions, as well as a friend whose limitless support has enabled me to pursue them. One of Vassar’s only alumnae/i that can boast having completed a triple major, a former Editor-in-Chief of The Miscellany News and now a first-year graduate student at Cambridge University, Bethan Johnson ’15 needs little introduction for those who know her. This week, I had the pleasure of catching up with her about her experiences since graduating, and what her own ambitions for the future are.
Q: What have you been up to over these last couple years?
A: After graduation, I accepted a one-year position to work for a social justice lobby firm in Washington, D.C. focused on education and advocacy with regards to national issues like income inequality and immigration reform. There, I devoted most of my energy to researching, co-writing and giving presentations, mostly to young people, on justice issues and the various forms of civic engagement. Toward the end of my time there, I also helped author an educational series about historic income inequality in the United States, including analysis on its intersections with race and gender identity. As my time there drew to a close, I realized how I enjoyed the historical research and writing components of my job and, coupled with a nagging feeling that I had more to say about my undergraduate history thesis on Welsh politics, I decided on a career-switch and applied to graduate school to study British history.
Q: What are you studying now, and what drew you to it? Where do you see yourself going with all this? Do you think anything from your time at Vassar drives you in that direction?
A: I am “reading” (read “working on”) a Masters in Philosophy in Modern British History. The course, surprisingly enough to friends and family, tends to focus on the “modern” period of 1600 to the present and generally analyzes the histories of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, with some attention to other places in the historic British Empire. Also, with a degree in which 70 percent of my final grade will be determined by my year-long dissertation, much of my time will be spent researching my topic. I am writing about the life and legacy of Lady Llanover, a 19th-century Welsh woman. Llanover has become synonymous with helping to preserve traditional Welsh culture through food, dress, language and music. This year, I will explore how authentic her version of Welsh culture was, her motives for preserving what she did and its implications for modern Welsh identity and nationalism.
As far as my future, I am hoping that I will work in the historical field after completing my degree. While I would love to write books and teach students about Welsh history—a discreet topic too often ignored, in my opinion, by historians—I am learning about all of the various career paths for someone interested in history. In my first weeks at Cambridge I have met archivists, authors, teachers, administrators, lawyers, politicians and museum curators all with history degrees. In earnest, I just want to keep telling people’s stories, through whatever avenues are open to me.
I actually think that most of my life now and my career aspirations are tethered to my time at Vassar. The passion I feel about amplifying the voices muted by time or by other people, my belief that I should write about topics that interest me, and the confidence that led me to think that I was capable of thriving in an academically rigorous place like Cambridge are all at least partially the result of the people I met at Vassar.
Q: Take me through the average workday of a Cambridge grad student. What keeps you busy?
A: Oddly, for a university so steeped in tradition, there is no discernable “average” in any aspect of life as a Cambridge graduate student; literally everyone else who I have met operates on a different schedule and that is the appealing truth about higher education. For some degrees, Cambridge operates very much like a business, with classes starting at 9 a.m. and ending at 5:30 p.m. every day, while others spend few, if any, hours in class at all.
Personally, I have three seminars over the course of two days, totaling five hours of class time. This sounds like a ridiculously low amount, I know, and this is the most I will ever receive since my degree emphasizes dissertation writing and research in the coming terms. However, in many ways graduate students at Cambridge learn more out of class than in it. Every day I attend graduate workshops to listen to scholars and students present their research, sit in on undergraduate seminars to shore up my knowledge on my intended areas of expertise and, most importantly, live in the library as I research my dissertation.
Aside from that, Cambridge is an institution that loves to connect people with each other and with the past. This means that I may spend one evening sharing drinks with my dissertation supervisor and the next wearing an academic robe while eating at high table with the fellows of my college. Adopting a schedule like this means I am often without spare moments to myself, but I am busy in a way that allows me to meet fascinating people and do things tailored to my interests.
Q: Any words of advice for current Vassar students?
A: While I am not a massive proponent of sweeping statements of advice, particularly from someone like me who has more aspirations than actual achievements at this point, I think that my experiences have shown me two things that may be helpful for others to know.
First, despite the seemingly hefty number of general graduation requirements and then distribution requirements for a concentration or correlate, I strongly recommend taking courses in other departments/programs. I saw the title “Politics, Law, Story” in the Jewish Studies offerings during freshman year pre-registration and signed up because of the title alone. Four years later, I graduated with a degree in Jewish Studies, having made some of my closest friends in life and having expanded my knowledge on so many topics that would likely have gone un-discovered otherwise. While most people will not choose to take more courses in that topic, that course can be a way of expanding horizons and this is one of the best times to totally indulge your hidden interests.
Potentially more importantly, the pressure which so many students, especially senior, (understandably) place on themselves to find the perfect job or ideal graduate program directly after graduation may be more harmful than helpful. I learned an incredible amount about the world and myself during my time in a field in which I no longer want to work. While it would have been nice to be a year further into my studies, I gained a great deal from my time in Washington that I can bring to bear in my historical analysis and, thus, view that time as a helpful sidestep rather than a “lost year.” I am also friends with too many people who settled for a job, any job because they were afraid to take a chance and wait for better opportunities; likewise, I know many happily employed people who are grateful that they took a few months working as a temp and applying for jobs that they actually wanted to do.
Do not let fears about needing to find the perfect job, the stigma about under- or unemployment, or even the seemingly constant barrage of “what are you doing after this” questions make you forget that mapping out your entire future from TA 12 may not be reasonable. Try not to punish yourself for needing some time to figure things out. I have found that the process of trying, and sometimes failing at, something can be extremely validating.