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Rachel Donaldson

Rachel Donaldson, Class of 2004

A Fordham American Studies Path:
From John Dos Passos to a History PhD

Phi Beta Kappa, Phi Alpha Theta, magna cum laude, Rachel Donaldson, wrote her senior thesis on the legal ideologies of southern unionists. She is now a Ph.D. student in American History at Vanderbilt University, where she studies under the labor historian David Carlton. She is especially interested in especially interested in early twentieth century southern cultural history and American folk culture. 

John Dos Passos brought me to American Studies. The summer before my sophomore year at Fordham, I worked as a “temporary laborer” on the Kingston-Rhinecliff Bridge over the Hudson River. During my lunch breaks over three months, I slowly worked my way through U.S.A.—a compilation of three of Dos Passos’ books. I had been interested in American history and especially American literature from the 1920s and 1930s since late in high school but I had not thought of turning it into an academic pursuit. When I returned to Fordham in the fall, I spoke with Father Massa who, it turned out, was also a fan of Dos Passos. Based on my interests, he recommended that I enter the American Studies Program, and it was some of the best advice I received in my early years of college.

Over the next three years, I took classes in the History Department as well as in other departments in the humanities. Dr. Cimbala’s course on the history of the American South piqued my interest in southern history—a topic that I would eventually pursue in my graduate work. During my senior year, I was also able to enroll in his graduate class on war and society. This experience was invaluable for introducing me to the nature of graduate work. I also enjoyed Dr. Crane’s constitutional history course as well as Dr. Naison’s class on African American History from the late 19th through early 20th century. After working with Dr. Naison in this class, I became one of the initial student members of the Bronx African American History Project and worked with Peter Derrick, the archivist at the Bronx Historical Society. This experience solidified my decision to pursue the study of history as a career. Not only did I enjoy these classes, but also these professors became my mentors. Their dedication to their own work as well as the time that they gave to me profoundly shaped the kind of academic that I now seek to become. So, if I have any advice to give to current students it is to get to know your professors! Many, like the ones I had, are inspirational.

More broadly speaking, I enjoyed pursuing a major in American Studies because it promotes a catholic understanding of American history. As a cultural-historian-in-training, I believe that to understand American history, or indeed any aspect of history, requires an engagement with many different fields. Art history, literature, philosophy, theology, and the social sciences all provide perspectives and intellectual tools that are critical for comprehending a particular time and place. The training I received in American Studies at Fordham therefore provided me with a strong intellectual foundation that prepared me for my graduate studies. Although I am working towards a doctorate in History, I remain active in American Studies programs, having presented my research at regional, national, and international American Studies Association conferences. I also have received fellowships at interdisciplinary institutions such as the Smithsonian Institution’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, and I am about to have an article published in the Journal of Popular Culture. Now, almost seven years after I graduated, I am about to defend my dissertation in the History Department at Vanderbilt University and continue on a path of academic pursuits—a path that began at Fordham.

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