Reading on the Road

As I write this I am currently sitting in a clinic in an orphanage in the Dominican Republic, supervising a team of ten dentists visiting for the week.  This is one of the few moments I will have to myself today.  The question I inevitably get from everyone has just come up: “How did a 24 year-old end up running an orphanage in the middle of the Caribbean?”  “By accident,” I tell them, “I applied to be the librarian.”

As I was graduating from college in 2008 I received some excellent advice.  I had already applied, and been accepted, to graduate school.  I had also been presented with the opportunity to backpack through Asia.  One afternoon I was closing up the bookstore in town where I worked to make ends meet, when one of my professors came in.  We chatted about the book he was looking for, and I told him about my dilemma.  He said something to me that I will never forget: he said take the more interesting path.  “Graduate school will still be there,” he said, “go to Asia.”  I did, and I have been on the road ever since.

At the time I was afraid that if I took time off I would find myself pulled onto some other path and I wouldn’t go back to school.  The last couple of years have had exactly the opposite effect.  In every country I have visited (there have been 22) I have found myself reading.  I have read books by local authors set in the places they live, and books by authors that knew nothing of the places they were describing.  I have read books that have influenced history in ways I am sure the authors never imagined, and I have read books that had absolutely nothing to do with the place I was in.  In Thailand I read A Child of the Northeast, and in Cambodia I couldn’t help but notice the shocking similarities between 1984 and the Khmer Rouge.  In Indonesia, when the ferry just never came back, and my two travel mates and I found ourselves trapped on an island the size of a postage stamp, I read Much Ado About Nothing six times.

In college I majored in English because I couldn’t help myself, every single course the department offered sounded interesting.  Even when I was studying abroad in Spain and supposed to be studying Spanish I signed up for a class in American literature, which ended up being one of the most eye opening experiences I have ever had in a classroom.  It was one of the first times it ever occurred to me that different cultures view literature through different lenses.  That experience profoundly shaped the research choices I made in my final year of college, and it has continued to influence the way I read.

I used my experience in that class as a starting point for much of my senior year research.  Many of the departments at [redacted] College require their seniors to do a capstone project, and as a double major I found myself doing two.  The topic the English Department chose that year was Western literature, and under the guidance of Professor [redacted] I wrote about the construction of morality in Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It and Mark Spragg’s Where Rivers Change Direction (see writing sample).  The Modern Languages Department takes a slightly different approach and asks its seniors to write a capstone paper, in the language of study, that only they could write having just spent a year abroad.  I chose to write on the Spanish reaction to Hemingway.  I was able to take a novel that I have always loved and write about it from a very personal point of view, while weaving in literary criticism and theory, primary research, interviews, and social and linguistic aspects.

Spring semester of my senior year I was invited by the English Department to write an honors thesis.  I was delighted and chose a topic that spanned several cultures.  I wanted to write on the African Diaspora’s influence on literature in the Americas, focusing on tracing narrative structures and aspects of magic realism found in African story telling through the works of Toni Morrison, William Faulkner and Gabriel García Márquez.  It was a large project, very fascinating and very broad.  As I am sure you will note based on my transcripts, I did not finish it.  I did, however, learn several very valuable lessons.  I learned that just because topics fit together does not mean that you will have time to cover them all.  I learned that just because you see a pattern somewhere does not mean someone else before you has seen it, and there may not always be a body of extant research to use as a springboard.  And most importantly I learned some hard lessons about choosing an advisor.  I learned that finding an advisor with expertise on the topic you want to look at, and who has the time to help you, can make all the difference in the world. Although I never finished the honors thesis, I believe I ended up learning more from that paper than I would have if I had completed it.  And the lessons I learned are ones that I believe will serve me well in graduate school.

Over the past several years I have come to appreciate the excellent education [redacted] College gave me.  Not only in the classroom, but also in the astounding opportunities I was provided with outside of the classroom.  As a freshman I stumbled into a work study job as a Research and Administrative Assistant for what I would later discover was one of the most feared professors on campus.  He held impossibly high standards, and had a reputation for making students cry.  I have heard him described as a “zealot” and find the description quite apt.  I worked on several projects for him, the most notable being the primary research and collection of materials for his next book, a comparative study of the politics of eating in the United States and England.  I also worked on several articles, both in the research phases and editing phases.  My senior year we hosted a Liberty Fund symposium on assisted suicide, for which I did research that ranged from the writings of Thomas Aquinas to finding out how much the Benson Hotel would charge for a buffet lunch.  I am proud to say that Professor [redacted] retained me for my entire career at [redacted], and I am even prouder to say that after years of digging through drawers of microfiche only to be told it was the wrong article, I consider [redacted] my friend.  He taught me early on what real research looks like, and the skills he gave me will serve me well beyond graduate school.

I am interested in pursuing my doctorate at the [redacted] for very simple reasons, the first being your faculty.  Several names kept cropping up during my various research projects, and one that came up over and over again in my research on Hemingway was Professor [redacted].  As I began looking at [redacted] in earnest I found several professors doing work in areas that fascinate me.  This spring I was fortunate enough to visit campus and chat with Professor [redacted], and although he is retiring, based on the conversations I had with him and with Professor [redacted], I believe that your department, and the flexibility of the program it offers, would be an ideal fit.

Throughout my experience at [redacted] College, as well as my experiences traveling, I have come to develop a deep interest in looking at literatures of various cultures, and how those literatures affect and interact with each other.   For instance, I am especially interested in looking for a way to combine literature and sociolinguistics.  The way certain authors (Hemingway, Twain, Morrison, Díaz, etc.) use dialects and foreign languages in their writing to create a sense of place or to add what some critics have referred to as “another dimension” fascinates me.  I want to look at why they are doing it, and why it achieves the desired effect in the mind of the reader.  I believe [redacted]’s degree in comparative literature is one of the few degrees that would allow me to do that.  Between the work that Professor [redacted] is doing on dialects, the overall strength of the department in literature, and the flexibility to work with other departments and even other schools in the area, this is one of the few places where pursuing my interests would be feasible.

I believe it is important to mention, though, that it is not the academics alone that draw me to [redacted].  During my visit to [redacted]’s department I was floored by the warm welcome I received.  I was encouraged to visit the rare books section in the library and to sit in on classes.  Professor [redacted] talked with me for an extensive amount of time, answering all of my questions, discussing the resurgence of Dos Passos, and debating the impersonal nature of research in the linguistics field.  Professor [redacted] made suggestions about other scholars to look at, and passed my email address on to undergraduate [redacted] who was working on a research project he thought I would find interesting.  It is also this atmosphere of conviviality that draws me to [redacted].

That rainy afternoon in the bookstore two and a half years ago seems like a lifetime ago.  The advice that professor gave me certainly pushed me down the road less traveled.  If someone had told me back then that tonight I will be arguing with 204 kids about whether or not we’re going to watch a movie before going to bed, I probably wouldn’t have believed them.  Even here, though, the siren song is calling me.

“Where are you going next?” the dentists tease, “Afghanistan?”

“No,” I laugh, “Don’t think so.”

I smile.  I know exactly where I want to go next.  And it’s not Afghanistan.


Versions of this essay were successful with several programs, including the author’s first choice, an R1 institution and a top 15 program.

{Need more help? Check out our ebook Hacking Your Statement of Purpose for a concise guide to writing and revising your Statement of Purpose.}