William & Mary Reflections

On May 17, I participated in William & Mary’s Commencement. This day of ceremony officially closed out my time as a student in the American Studies Program. Over Memorial Day weekend, Brandon and I moved from Williamsburg to Norfolk. Between January 1 and Memorial Day, I started a new job, finished my dissertation, sold one house, bought another one, and moved to a new city. A lot has happened in my life in the past six months.

The Wren Building, 2018. Six years ago I took this picture while visiting campus as a prospective student in early March. I used this photo on my previous blog, The Fanciful Lobster, to announce my upcoming enrollment.

Amidst so much change, I haven’t had much time to reflect on William & Mary and my experiences there. Today then, I’d like to look back on my past six years in the program, because it’s been a great experience for me. I’ve been able to evolve my research practice, expand my networks, adapt my skill sets to different professional settings, and make great friends.

To be clear, today’s post will only reflect on my personal experiences with the graduate program. Not all of my cohorts have had such positive encounters in the program. The disparity in our experiences stems from both issues within our department and academia more generally. For me though, my experiences have largely been good ones.

How William & Mary Benefitted Me as a Researcher

When I came to William & Mary, I thought I had one good project in me, my interest in federal community art centers. And yes, William & Mary provided plenty of opportunities to think about CACs, from dissertation chapters to conference papers.

Yet the most valuable thing William & Mary gave me was the time and space to develop all my interests as a researcher. I’ve learned over the past six years that my interest in art access extends far beyond the CAC initiative. More than a one-project pony, I’ve come away from my PhD experience knowing that I’ve only just begun to tap into my full potential as a scholar.

William & Mary is also where I started working seriously with the digital humanities. The experiences I’ve had with DH through my seminars, reading lists, and assistantships remain some of the most exciting academic work I’ve done here. As I move into my postgraduate life, I’ll continue looking for projects that enable me stay engaged in DH. Whether I’m mapping out federal Community Art Centers or working on initiatives for the Barry Art Museum and ODU, I’ll stay involved with DH.

Thanks to my time learning about DH at William & Mary, I was able to take this physical map of community art centers and turn it into a digital project where other researchers can share their work.

How My Assistantships Benefitted Me Professionally

Just as the dissertation expanded my research interests and methods, the assistantships I had at William & Mary benefitted me as a professional my applying my skills to different professional settings. I’ve co-organized virtual symposia, assisted students with their resumes, and taught a course of my own design. I even got to spend a week in Scotland.

What I appreciate about these experiences is that they enabled me to see my professional skills outside of a museum setting. Beginning with my summer internship at the National Museum of Wildlife Art in 2010, I’ve worked almost exclusively at museums. While I knew I was good at curation, I also wondered whether I could be successful in another field.

William & Mary’s assistantships provided a low-stakes way to try out different professions. I could embrace learning new skills or trying out different professional hats without worrying about whether I’d get fired. Ultimately, I did decide to return to museums, as the position I have now allows me to maintain my interests in both curation and academia. Yet I know that if I ever decide to change careers, I’ll feel a lot more confident doing so.

Networking and Other Opportunities at Conferences

Outside of the William & Mary campus, I also benefitted from extracurricular activities like attending conferences. I was able to see new cities like New Orleans, and revisit familiar ones like Chicago. I shared my research on national and international platforms, and learned about great ideas to incorporate into my own research. Most importantly, I made some wonderful connections through in-person and virtual networking.

One of the most tangible benefits to come out of these new connections have been publications. During my time in the graduate program, I authored or co-authored two peer-reviewed articles, two book chapters, one book review, and one essay. Three of these projects developed directly out of conferences and symposia I’d participated in, whether as a presenter or an organizer. I’ve also got an idea for an edited volume based on a conference panel I organized in 2022.

The Friends We Made: Camaraderie at William & Mary

Yet graduate school should never be about the number of words written or articles produced. For me, I’m especially grateful for the friends I’ve made among the students and faculty in the American Studies Program and beyond.

All of my fellow 2024 American Studies graduates at Commencement. I consider these great folks friends as well as colleagues.

PhD programs aren’t generally known for their vibrant social lives. The American Studies Program at William & Mary is particularly infamous for its largely antisocial character. When I first came to Williamsburg, I worried I’d have trouble making friends. Not only was I in my 30s, a notoriously difficult age to make friends, I had just relocated from the other side of the country.

Yet the six years I spent in Williamsburg were socially vibrant ones. My cohort and I would get together during the semester to catch up on each other’s lives. During my first year, I befriended a student in my Capitalisms class. When we both realized we had partners, we started hanging out together, something we continue to this day. Through Brandon’s connections at work, I made additional friends through trivia nights, cookouts, and other gatherings.

And even though we live in Norfolk now, William & Mary is not completely out of my life. Unlike my previous degree programs, where I immediately moved 1000 miles away, Williamsburg is only 50 miles away. I’ve already expressed interest in participating in panels, workshops, and other events for students. After giving so much to me, I’m excited to give back to the American Studies Program.

Final Thoughts in William & Mary

Let’s be clear: my time at William & Mary hasn’t all been kittens and rainbows. By my second semester, the novelty of attending classes again had worn off. Like any human-focused workplace, academia is replete with disagreements, power inequities, and, flippant as it may sound, drama. Overworked faculty weren’t always able to provide dissertation feedback on my schedule. I spent two years during the program more or less stuck at home because of the pandemic. That didn’t do my mental health any favors. So William & Mary was by no means a perfect graduate experience.

On the whole, however, I had a great time here. I made some great friends and benefitted from some wonderful mentorships. As a researcher, I came away more confident in my skills and interests than I’ve been since an undergraduate. For that alone, I’ll always be grateful.

When I moved to Williamsburg from Roswell, I was seeking change. I was anxious about returning to school after being away for several years. Yet I also knew I needed a new challenge, something to reinvigorate my life academically and personally. William & Mary did just that. For that, I’ll always be thankful.

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