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Jessie Wilkerson '06
- Earned her undergraduate degree from Carson Newman College.
- Received her BA in English.
Why did you choose Sarah Lawrence for graduate school? Why Women's History?
My junior year of college, a group of friends and I, with the help of a sympathetic faculty member, petitioned our school for more courses in Women’s Studies. I took a variety of courses in women’s literature, women’s health, and women’s history, but it was women’s history that piqued my curiosity the most. I was interested in the construction of history and how gender, race, and class all play roles in that construction. The professor who taught my Women’s History course at Carson Newman, Beth Vanlandingham, urged me to consider the M.A. program in Women’s History at Sarah Lawrence College. I found at Sarah Lawrence a program that would support my ever-growing curiosity in women’s history through diverse coursework, caring and resourceful faculty and staff, and a cadre of students with whom I could share ideas.
How did your coursework prepare you for further study and/or an eventual career?
It prepared me for both! Since graduating, I have been an instructor of history (U.S. and Western Civilization) at a community college in East Tennessee. The coursework at Sarah Lawrence taught me to ask questions about history, and that skill has been invaluable as I have designed my lectures. Without even knowing it I was learning how to be a creative teacher! The Women’s History program at Sarah Lawrence fosters multiple perspectives of history, and those perspectives have made me a better history teacher. Plus, I had excellent teachers at Sarah Lawrence and excellent examples of how to be an effective teacher myself!
Now I am preparing to enter a Ph.D program in history. Faculty gave me the same attention and the same helpful advice when I was preparing applications (even from hundreds of miles away) as they gave me when I was in their courses. Sarah Lawrence faculty prove committed to supporting students through the rest of their academic and professional careers.
How did the courses and/or faculty help shape your experience as a scholar?
The courses at Sarah Lawrence were important for me as a scholar who is interested in linking academic issues and social justice concerns. For instance, in my labor history and urban history courses, taught by Priscilla Murolo and Komozi Woodward, respectively, I was able to study with scholars who are not only accomplished in their fields, but who are active in the social movements related to those fields. Thus, their personal experience made them especially effective instructors, and they were particularly attuned to my interests as a scholar interested in activism. Later, as Priscilla Murolo advised my thesis work, I continued to combine my interests and developed a thesis that documents the work of women activists in East Tennessee through oral history.
Please describe the seminar that had the greatest impact on your development as an historian and scholar.
The Visions/Revisions seminar was the perfect introduction to both the program and to the study of history. Each week in the seminar we identified the framework that informed a particular text or set of texts in the field of women’s history. In this way, we could identify how history evolves as the questions or perspectives that inform it evolve.
How did the interdisciplinary nature of the program affect your training?
I had the opportunity to experience academia on many fronts, which I believe made me not only a better historian, but better prepared for a Ph.D. program and a career in history. I was able to take courses that combined my interests in history and literature as well as history and social justice, and I also had the opportunity to do independent study at the Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Archives where I was trained as an archivist assistant. Furthermore, the program supported me as I traveled to several history conferences where I presented papers and met with historians from around the country and the world. Overall, I had a diverse experience that piqued my intellectual curiosity on many levels.
What was the focus of your M.A. thesis?
My thesis centered on the local activism of working class women in East Tennessee during a campaign to win occupational health and safety rights for workers. I considered the challenges they faced as women in a male-dominated labor movement and the ways that they constructed their own leadership roles within the movement. Most of my research was based on oral histories from the women and men involved in the movement.
Where have you worked, and what have you worked on, since graduating?
I work currently at Pellissippi State Technical Community College, and I have also worked a Walters State Community College.
I have also become active in Jobs with Justice of East Tennessee and now serve on the board of the local chapter, where I work with many of the same activists who informed my thesis work. Our Jobs with Justice chapter is now working on developing a local worker center that will serve as an organizing and resource center for low-wage workers in the region. The research skills that I gained at Sarah Lawrence have served me well as I now do research in my community activities.
Have you / do you intend to pursue another degree?
In the fall of 2008, I am entering the graduate program in history at UNC-Chapel Hill to work towards my Ph.D.
What advice can you offer to people who are considering pursuing a career in a field related to Women's History?
Make sure that your academic career reflects diverse experiences. There are many opportunities to do interdisciplinary work at Sarah Lawrence, to get involved in campus organizations or even local and regional organizations, and to attend conferences where you will exchange ideas with other scholars. All of these opportunities will make you a better scholar, not to mention an attractive job or Ph.D. applicant!
What do you consider the strongest attribute of the Women's History program?
The faculty’s investment in students. Faculty in the program are the most valuable resources one can find in the program. They help students probe complicated historical issues, point students to much needed resources in historical texts and archives, they are prepared to spend individual, focused time with students, and they help link students to academic networks in important ways.
What is your most special memory of the time you spent at Sarah Lawrence?
My fondest memories at Sarah Lawrence are from my experiences in the thesis workshop that Women’s History students participate in during their second year. It was such a wonderful opportunity to work with my fellow students as we were all struggling over developing our topics, finding the resources to inform our topics, and finally finding the words to communicate our ideas. The program at Sarah Lawrence fosters an intellectual community, and the thesis workshop—where students support one another through their academic pursuits—best captures that sense of community.