Ashley Theissen (Spring 2009) shares how she decided to attend graduate school, her fondest memories while at NKU, and advice for current students. She’s currently a PhD student in 20th century and contemporary U.S. fiction at Indiana University, and she maintains a professional blog at ashleytheissen.wordpress.com .
What are you doing? What have you been up to?
I just took my qualifying exams in September. I will start working on my dissertation this spring. While I am still figuring out my project, I plan on working on fictional representations of marginal figures such as the homeless, addicts, and the mentally ill. I want to explore how these figures articulate with other historical reasons for marginalization in the U.S., such as race, class, gender, and sexuality.
After I graduated NKU, I spent 9 months working at Keystone Bar and Grill in Covington, my place of employment during undergrad. I decided to take a year to focus on applying for graduate school instead of doing so while I was finishing up my degree. I know now that this was the right decision! Not only did it give me the necessary time for the application process, but it also allowed me to spend time with friends and family before moving away. I also met the man who is now my husband during this “gap” year!
How did you know you wanted to go to graduate school? What helped your decision to attend where you are now?
I think I was a sophomore in high school when I decided I wanted to be a professor. At the time, I thought I wanted to do history. When I started college (at Kentucky Wesleyan College in Owensboro, Kentucky) I decided to major in Political Science and Art. After a few semesters, I realized I was much more interested in my English classes! So I switched majors, but my professional goals remained the same. For me, graduate school was always a necessary step to get to where I wanted to go.
I applied during a very competitive year, so my decision to attend IU was partially based on the fact that I got in! with funding! If you are trying to decide where to go to graduate school, it is important to create that initial list with care. You may only get into a few places, even if you apply for 8-10 schools. So, for me, I only applied to programs I had thoroughly researched and felt comfortable attending. I was thrilled when I got accepted to IU, because it is a very strong program with amazing faculty.
What is one of your fondest memories of NKU?
I have so many. Really! Let’s see… Almost every memory I have of taking classes in the Honors House is a highlight. I was able to create documentaries for class projects, go on amazing field trips, and build a really cool community with students and teachers there. But I think my most important memory is one that has gained significance over time: it was in the final months of my senior year, and I had just turned in a mediocre draft of my senior thesis (on Kate Chopin and Virginia Woolf) to my advisor, Tonya Krouse. After reading the draft, Tonya set up a meeting with me. She told me I had two options: 1) do final edits and “call it” because I had already done more than enough work to fulfill the requirement, or 2) dig deep and find the energy to complete the project I had set out to write. This was a moment of reckoning for me. It does not sound like a “happy” memory, I know, and at the time I certainly was not happy! But over the years, when I have had, again and again, to dig deep and find the tenacity and persistence that I feel like I have lost, I remember that conversation. And I remember that I did choose option 2, and I did my best to produce the document I wanted to, despite the difficulty of my senior year. And a happier memory to end on: when I presented that same paper at the NKU Honors Colloquium, John Alberti asked me what I would change about transatlantic scholarship if I could. I began my answer “Well, if I were in charge of English everywhere….” That’s all you need to know. The confidence of a undergrad!
What are you reading now?
Critical things to “fill in the gaps” about my exam period, so, at the moment, Brian McHale’s Postmodernist Fiction (1987). I am also rereading everything Junot Díaz has written because he is visiting IU this spring and I love his work more than anything ever!
Do you have any advice for current students?
Study the fields you excel at and the ones you really love. Because I am now a teacher as well as a student, I find myself helping my students with letters, advice, career searches, etc. So many careers today require a degree, but not a specific one. So if you are worried about getting a job, the best thing to do is study something you can be proud of, and that you can talk about with grace and expertise. If you try to bet on the “right” major, but you get it wrong or it isn’t the right fit for you, it won’t make a difference anyway. So do what you love, AND work really hard to figure out how you are gaining the critical thinking, communication, cultural awareness, and other skills that will serve you throughout your life, no matter what your job title is or how many times you change careers. Take this time to learn about yourself and the world you live in, and no matter what, it will be worthwhile time spent.
What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were at NKU?
Graduate school is so much harder than I could have imagined! But everyone told me that… it is one of those things I could not have known then. And maybe that is for the best, after all.