Arts and Letters students share their experiences in unique majors
Claire Reid | Monday, May 3, 2021
The University of Notre Dame offers approximately 75 degree programs encompassing everything from accountancy to theology. However, some majors are less well-known or populous than others. The Observer interviewed four students in the College of Arts and Letters at Notre Dame about how they chose their major and how they plan to use it in the future.
Summer Kerksick: A diverse voice in the Irish language major
Sophomore Summer Kerksick entered Notre Dame as an international economics and Irish language major. She had taken an interest in the latter in high school.
“I did a Duolingo program on Irish when I was 15 [or] 16 years old,” Kerksick said. “I’m also 20% Irish myself, so I’ve been around Irish culture my entire life, especially in the part of Chicago that my dad’s side of the family is from.”
Kerksick said it was these two experiences that inspired her to pursue the Irish language major at Notre Dame — the only major of its kind in North America.
In general, Kerksick said her parents have been supportive of her choice of what to study although she was surprised when it was her dad, whose family history influenced her interest in Irish, who was initially skeptical about the possible career paths in the Irish language major.
Kerksick’s friends have also been extremely encouraging in her study of Irish.
“They’re really excited for me because I think I’m going to be the first black person to graduate with that major,” Kerksick said.
In her opinion, the biggest misconception about the major is that it is only open to students of European or Irish descent.
She recalled how herself and an Asian student were the only people of color in her beginning Irish class, and how, since then, she has been the only person of color in her Irish courses.
“Being the only person of color I know of in the entire major, that’s really hard,” Kerksick admitted. “Like one night, I called my mom crying. I was just like, ‘I don’t feel like I belong here,’ and I wanted to drop the major because I was like ‘I really feel like I shouldn’t be here because I’m not 100% white.’ It still will get to me sometimes, but, you know, it is what it is.”
Even so, Kerksick loves the community she has found through the major.
“The best part about it, I’d say, is the fact that it’s a very small major,” she said.
There are only four students in Kerksick’s current Irish class, which has allowed the group to become very tight-knit.
“I’ve been with them since the beginning,” Kerksick continued. “I know more about them than I know about people in my other classes, so we’ve formed friendships from how small the classes are.”
Kerksick has also found that her professors have been extremely patient and understanding of the fact that Irish is not the easiest language to learn.
“They know that this is not like learning Spanish or French like you were taught in high school,” Kerksick said. “This is a completely different language family, and you have to start from the beginning … They don’t get upset, they don’t get irritated.”
After graduation, Kerksick hopes to work for the US Department of State’s Bureau of European Affairs in Ireland relations. She is confident that learning the Irish language will give her a competitive advantage.
“Even though it might not be essential for an American to know Irish in order to talk to Irish people, the Irish government is actually required to know both English and Irish, so if I’m ever needed in a situation … I’d be able to speak both Irish and English,” Kerksick said.
She said she encourages everyone to study a new language while in college.
“I think that everybody should try a language that is not Spanish, French or Italian at some point,” Kerksick said. “Take a Hebrew class, take a Chinese class, take a Greek class.”
Ryan Palmer: Learning ancient languages and finding parallels between the past and today
Sophomore philosophy and theology and classics major Ryan Palmer would certainly echo Kerksick’s advice. Palmer is currently studying both Greek and Latin and is planning to learn Hebrew his senior year.
“A couple friends have joked that I should try learning a language that people actually speak,” Palmer said. “But for whatever reason, I’m drawn to the languages that no one is speaking anymore. And you know what, I’m okay with that.”
Throughout his time as a Notre Dame student, Palmer tried out various majors from political science to international economics to history. He eventually settled on a double major in philosophy and theology and history, but after taking a Greek class, decided to switch from history to classics.
Palmer said that studying Greek felt like a natural complement to his interests in theology, philosophy and history because it would allow him to read the ancient Greek philosophers and the Scriptures in their original form.
He also missed studying Latin as he had in high school, so he decided to study both classical languages.
“I’ve always loved languages, and there’s something about when you read something in its original text,” Palmer said. “There’s things that just cannot be translated into our language. You can kind of idiomatically do it, but it doesn’t really fit perfectly.”
Palmer believes in the power of reading texts in their original language.
“When you read ancient plays and poetry and stuff they can come across as boring, and honestly, sometimes I even think the English translations are. But that’s because there’s … so much lost in translation.”
By reading ancient works in their original languages, he has realized that people in ancient times were much less stern and proper than people today generally assume.
He added that the number one misconception about majors like classics is that the ancient material being studied has no relevance to the happenings of today’s world.
“With ideas and beauty and poetry, those things I feel like are everlasting,” Palmer said. “You can appreciate those things like 2000 years later … and there’s some amazing parallels between what I’m studying and the Peloponnesian War in Greek history to the modern Cold War between the US and Russia. You know, history does have a way of repeating itself.”
While Palmer said he would be the first to admit that classics is not for everyone, he has found a strong, tight-knit community within the major. In fact, he serves as the parliamentarian for the Classics Club which organizes events like undergrad vs. grad/faculty volleyball games and classics lake walks where club members walk around St. Mary’s Lake pausing every 10 minutes or so to read a bit of poetry in a classical language.
“As much as I wish more people would come to appreciate the classics major, one of the really nice things about the major is how small the department is because you really get to know the professors quite well and they’re able to devote a lot of time to caring about you and helping you figure out your academic future,” Palmer said.
As for his academic future, Palmer is leaning toward pursuing a graduate degree in theology, but law school or a graduate degree in philosophy are also possibilities.
Meredith Meyer: Living out her faith through peace studies
Like Palmer, Meredith Meyer is also pursuing a joint major in philosophy and theology. She is also a global affairs supplementary major with a concentration in peace studies.
Meyer selected the peace studies concentration during the fall semester of her freshman year at Notre Dame, but selected the global affairs supplementary major before she arrived on campus.
“When I came to visit, the admissions speaker talked about the global affairs program … and it really appealed to my interests,” Meyer recalled.
Discovering the global affairs program solidified Notre Dame as Meyer’s top college choice, and she felt that the peace studies concentration was the perfect way to put the material she is studying in philosophy and theology into practice.
“Peace studies is an area in which I can work to enact many of the principles that I have come to believe in through my Catholic faith, such as promoting nonviolence and social justice,” Meyer said.
She added that peace studies is helping her develop as a person by providing her with opportunities to learn about different cultures and step outside the cultural bubble she grew up in.
Peace studies explores the root causes of conflict from intersectional lenses including environmental, religious and economic perspectives. The major also challenges students to think about how who a person is.
“My favorite thing about my major is that it’s so immediately applicable to my life and the world,” Meyer said. “I am learning how to think critically and creatively, and to question what I believe about myself and the world.”
Though Meyer’s parents are fully supportive of her Arts and Letters pursuits, other family members have questioned what she will do with such an “obscure major.”
Meyer said she wishes more people recognized the importance of Arts and Letters majors rather than dismissing them as easy or impractical.
“People often think there isn’t much you can do with my majors or that certain majors can only lead to one specific field or job in the future,” Meyer said. “But I love the Arts and Letters motto, ‘Study everything, do anything,’ because I think it really embodies my college experience. I am studying what I’m passionate about, and I have full confidence that it will lead me to many different and amazing opportunities in the future.”
Tilly Keeven-Glascock: Following her passion in history and education
Sophomore Tilly Keeven-Glascock, began her time at Notre Dame in the Mendoza College of Business as a finance and economics double major. Her time in Mendoza was short lived, but an experience during a finance exam her first semester left Keeven-Glascock with a great story.
“I actually decided to change my major in the middle of a finance exam,” Keeven-Glascock said.
She was handed the midterm, looked at it and then looked up at Professor Carl Ackerman.
“I was like ‘I want to change my major,’” Keeven-Glascock recalled. “And he said ‘Okay,’ so I handed him the test back and the next day I went and changed my major.”
Growing up, Keeven-Glascock said, she had always known she wanted to be a teacher. But around sophomore or junior year of high school, she felt pressured to pursue a more economically beneficial path.
But shortly into her time in college, Keeven-Glascock — who is now a history major at Notre Dame and an education major at St. Mary’s College through the ND/SMC Co-Exchange Program — realized she had different priorities.
“The reason that I changed to history and education was not only because I was specifically interested in those subjects, but also, I kind of had to do some rewiring of my mindset into like, ‘Okay, well, there’s success in terms of what can make you the most money and there’s success in terms of what actually makes you happy, and I am trying to choose to prioritize the happy part,” Keeven-Glascock explained.
She feels incredibly blessed and privileged to have parents who were so supportive of her decision to change her major because she has lots of friends who are not pursuing Arts and Letters degrees but want to.
“I have friends in Mendoza and engineering and science who genuinely — and I mean this in no malevolent way toward them — wish they were doing the humanities, but their parents said ‘I won’t support you,’ ‘I won’t help with tuition,’ etcetera,” Keeven-Glascock said.
Keeven-Glascock said she understands the vast majority of these parents just want to ensure the most stable possible future for their children. However, she also feels that many people have misconceptions about Arts and Letters majors, the biggest being that they are easy because students have more essays and projects and fewer traditional exams.
“The stereotype that Arts and Letters is ‘easy’ is completely false,” Keeven-Glascock said. “It’s just a difference in the way that we learn and the way that we enjoy being assessed.”
But she said these unfortunately common misconceptions often come from others’ unhappiness with themselves.
“It comes from a place of insecurity or internalized unhappiness; we try to invalidate other people’s educational interests if we’re not feeling exceptionally fulfilled,” Keeven-Glascock said. “That’s such a big thing, not even at Notre Dame or just in college; arts and humanities are so devalued.”
But despite the misunderstandings of others, Keeven-Glascock has found a great support system in her academic programs.
“Our professors are so very aware of the misconceptions and stereotypes that come with Arts and Letters,” she said. “[They are] so affirming and validating. I can’t tell you how much they’ve impacted feeling like I’m reassured in my decision to be this major.”
Upon graduation, Keeven-Glascock will receive her teaching certificate from Saint Mary’s. Her ultimate goal is to become a full-time teacher, and she is interested in possibly taking part in the Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) Teaching Fellows program or a similar program after graduation. Eventually, she also hopes to write a book about one of her historical interests such as queer history or the roots of political extremism.
Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article misstated that Ryan Palmer would study Hebrew while abroad. The Observer regrets this error.