November 2016 in Retrospect

Oh, friends, what can I say about 2016?

Last year, I wrote that the world changed in 2015. Now, I think that if the world changed in 2015, it imploded in 2016. Nothing is the same now. Nothing will be the same again. Coming out of the “shock” phase of the post-election, I see that this is a good thing. The world was always imploding. It didn’t happen suddenly on November 8th. It happened slowly, for years, among people we thought about often, disparagingly, and people we never thought about. It happened through our actions as much as through theirs.

And now, we’re thinking about them. We’re thinking about why they voted the way they did. We’re thinking about how they had to feel, what they had to suffer, the fear they had to have, in order to vote that way. We’re thinking about what kind of country we’ve built that stockpiles educated ignorance until we can’t see the suffering on the other side. We’re thinking about how we can reach out, to those who will be hurt by the aftershocks of this election and to those who voted for Trump. How can we listen? How can we help? How can we protect?

I still plan to write up my usual month-by-month nostalgic replay of the dying year, but first, I want to write about November 2016. Because election day fell just before my MA program’s finals stress began and so I never found the time to blog about it. I am not so delusional as to think that I will say something here that has not yet been said. I have been reading powerful accounts of the election across the Internet for months. But I need, well, not closure, but to set down my own account here. A retelling of what’s happened from my perspective, along with my promise for the future. I need to do this because I never want to forget November 2016. It is the part of my year that I want to reverberate the longest, not only into 2017, but throughout the rest of my life.

Along these lines, I feel lucky to be in graduate school right now. Historians have never been more vital. I dislike that old adage, “history repeats itself,” because it doesn’t. The same thing never happens twice in the same way; we are changing every instant. You, already, are a different person from the one who read the previous sentence. A better adage, perhaps, is “history never ends.” The past is powerful; it is intimately connected to our present. We can trace threads of politics, economics, culture, backwards and forwards in time. We can unearth rich examples to live by, we can preach the danger of old mistakes, we can find humor and wisdom and oh so much humanity in history. This work–writing stories, drawing connections, thinking of the present as part of the past–this is the work I want to do for the rest of my life. I am more sure of this than ever.

But back to November: in the wee hours of election night, after my friends had gone home and the remnants of what was supposed to be a triumphant party had been cleaned up, I wrote something down. It’s not much, but it’s my account:

It’s difficult to explain something I hardly understand myself. I don’t know how to react, how to comfort, how to write. What I do know is that at 3 a.m., Anna, sitting in the middle of my couch with Jon on one side and me on the other, grabbed our hands. It had just been announced that Hillary Clinton called Donald Trump to concede the election. CBS was flashing the news that Donald Trump was the projected 45th president of the United States of America. “I don’t feel safe anymore,” Anna told us, squeezing our hands and pulling her knees to her chest, “I don’t know what’s going to happen.” All I could tell her is that we’re still here. We’ll still be here tomorrow, and the next day. There are good people here, and out there, and we will not concede the truths that we know. But no words felt brave enough, compassionate enough. Even to myself, I cannot find the words. I cannot justify this with what I know of my country. I cannot justify this with what I’ve always believed about human goodness, about our essential desire to do right by others. When Jon and Anna left, the minute I turned the deadbolt behind them, I burst into tears. There, among wine bottles with labels like “The Velvet Devil,” which I had picked out at Trader Joe’s because I thought themed wine would be a delightfully ironic way to watch Trump lose. There, among scattered chairs where my friends had sat for hours with me, growing quieter and quieter. There, in a safe place that suddenly felt as if it were crouching against a roiling world. 

Future humans, do not make light of our shock, our terror, as we are sometimes wont to do with the past. Do not look back on this election and say, “That’s hilarious! Those stupid Americans actually elected Donald Trump in 2016!” Instead, try to understand how this happened. Understand this election as the end of something hopeful, the beginning of something much darker. Do not make light of what happened here tonight. Do not make light of a candidate whose platform was built on hatred, suspicion, racism, misogyny, fear. Do not make light of the millions who elected him. They have pain, too. They have fear, or they would not have voted for him. Do not let this continue. Do not let this happen again.

And then the next day:

Today, I alternate between tears and rage. It’s as if someone has died, and I forget for a few minutes at a time, drifting into the normalcy of schoolwork or sleep or even laughing with friends. And then I remember, suddenly, the weight against my heart, the terrible wrong that has been done. Everyone’s eyes look red. On campus, I see a history PhD candidate I don’t know well, and there are tears on her cheeks. We can barely greet each other, and my own face is wet as I watch her walk away. A student stands outside of the Sadler Center holding a sign that says “free hugs,” with a Hillary “H.” I see another student practically run into his arms. I consider it myself. I’m grateful, today, to be on this campus. It’s not perfect here. Not everyone voted the same way. Already some harassment has begun, bullies made bolder by a bully being affirmed. But the people who surround me – my cohort, my professors – are mostly like-minded. We have Historian’s Craft at 9:30 a.m. this morning, and can hardly talk about the subaltern. We cannot even talk about the obvious connections between Spivak’s essay and what has just happened. We can only stare hollowly at each other, and the professor dismisses us early. Her face looks even worse than ours. Everything is dark, still.

And the next:

A professor has called for a gathering of American Studies and History students, mostly graduate students. We huddle together in the library of the creaky old American Studies building. We hold plates of pizza and cookies on our laps. We don’t look at each other at first; we don’t know how to begin. And then, we talk about what has happened. We talk about the tragedy of it. But mostly, we talk about the shame of it. The shame of not suspecting this could happen, of being so entrenched in our own rightness that we didn’t reach out to those whose pain and fear was so great that they were tempted by such a candidate. They elected him because they thought he could protect them. Because he gave them a voice they didn’t have, a voice that we, each in our small way, contributed to silencing. I’m ashamed of that. I have been blinded by arrogance toward those I perceived to be ignorant. That is not the person I want to be. That is not the historian I want to be. In my work I strive to listen to those who have not yet been listened to, but how can I do this if I cannot practice it in my own life? Nearly everyone is crying as the weight of this settles. The professor begins to talk. He says something I’ll never forget: that the most we can do is to love honestly. To do so comes with a great deal of risk, but it’s a vital risk, a worthwhile one. He says that we’ll be okay, because we’ll protect each other. He reminds us of when Dumbledore said, “I am not worried. I am with you.” At that, some sob audibly. We touch each other’s shoulders, offer hugs, pass Kleenex. The professor hands a handkerchief to a particularly distraught student. On Monday, we begin the work of deciding what to do. Tonight, we keep each other close and let ourselves mourn.

These are the most important parts of 2016 for me. And I want, more than anything, for the most important parts of 2017 to be related. But I don’t want to talk about this anymore. I want to do the work. I want to be part of the change that this country desperately needs. I can give what I have. I can take up my torch, as I trust you will take up yours. We can change this country.

2017 is for us, not for him.

I want to leave you with a song. It’s been my anthem for the past few months, and is a hopeful, resolved, frenzied reminder that we WILL make it through this year. And the next, and the next.

I’ll see you in 2017.

10 Things I Learned at 25


At twelve, ready for those beautiful teenage years to begin. Sorry Amy, you didn’t deserve this.

Another year in my grand old life has passed, and, a month out from my birthday, I’m burrowed into 26.

It’s strange, this 26. It’s the oldest I’ve ever been of course, but it feels like the oldest I’ve ever been. It feels notably different, somehow. And for the first time, I’ve started to think: maybe I should start acting like an adult now? Not that I’m horrifically immature, but should I stop being such a goofball? Should I set up all my bills to automatically withdraw from my checking account? Should I try not to trip as much? Should I smile benevolently at teenagers? I don’t plan on overhauling who I am, but some of the things I’ve been throughout my life don’t seem to fit anymore. I’m thinking about those things, and also thinking about who I want to be as an adult. Elbow patches, books with notes in the margins, moderately tamed hair, devastating puns, impressive movie trivia, and a Subaru, I’ve always thought. And a career I love. And people I love around me. Some of these things I already have. As for the rest, we’ll see what 26 brings.

In the meantime, here are some things I learned in a year of being 25:

  1. I can do hard things. The thing is, I’ve never thought of myself as particularly brave. When I was offered a job across the country on a Thursday and had to start on Monday, I did what I needed to do to pack, find a place to stay, and transition my life. I’ve always felt that taking that job was the best choice, and I simply made it. But applying to graduate school, and actually getting myself here, I’m proud of that. I did that. I didn’t have to; I had a job already. But I desperately wanted to, and I managed it. It was hard, but I managed it. I think I need to learn to give myself some credit.
  2. I get by with a little help from my friends. Look, I’m an introvert. It’s often my reflex, especially after a long or trying day, to curl up on my bed and read or Netflix by myself. When I’m stressed out, I don’t want to talk about it; I want to internalize until I drive myself crazy. But you know what I’ve learned this year? I need other people. I need to talk to other people about things, and I need to laugh with other people, and I need other people to survive things like Winter Storm Jonas.
  3. People are exactly who they say they are, and who they show you they are. Exactly. They can change, of course, but don’t wait around; they likely will not be changing anytime soon, despite your kindly offers to help.
  4. There’s not much more satisfying than spending a snowy afternoon making homemade bread. Even if it doesn’t rise properly. See “hard things” above.
  5. Enjoy your life. Enjoy every minute. Cherish even the hard minutes, the embarrassing ones, even the worrisome, painful, tragic minutes. People (and Pinterest) will tell you this a lot, but that doesn’t make it less true: this is it. This is your life. Welcome, you’re here. What are you making today? Who do you love? Which songs make up your Spotify playlist? Cling to the miracle that is being here, all of us, together, living. And when in doubt, remember that baby pandas exist.
  6. Life is change.
  7. Dancing is only awkward if you believe it’s awkward. If you’re unselfconscious and having fun, no one will look twice at you. Even if you’re doing your signature, bewildering, karate-chop-the-air move. (I can teach you that sometime.)
  8. When the entire world is telling you to watch a certain show, watch it. Don’t try to be hipster, don’t fight the mainstream. Watch the damn show. It’ll be as good as they promised.
  9. Ask them out. It’ll be awkward, it’ll be nerve-wracking, it might not go the way you hoped. But you’ll be glad you did. And if possible: DO NOT corner them in an elevator to do this. (I can tell you that story sometime.)
  10. That thing you lie in bed and think about before you go to sleep? That thing you preface with “I wish I could” or, “wouldn’t it be great if?” That thing you make time for even when you don’t have time? That’s the thing you should be doing with your life. Go do it.

And now, a brief Game of Thrones spinoff series:

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Washington State/Seattle Trip, July 2016

I see why everyone wants to move to Seattle.

It seems that’s all I hear these days: “Where do you want to end up?” “Well, Seattle’s cool.”

Yes, my friends. Seattle is cool. Take me with you, please.

Gas Works Park, as seen in “10 Things I Hate About You.”

I’ve just returned from a weeklong vacation in Washington State. Maddie, one of my best friends from college, got married, and decided to run the risk of having me walk down the aisle before her. And also put me in a delicate dress that I later spilled beer on. It will forever reek of a glorious night.

It was the first wedding I’ve been in, and the festivities were a joyful blur of laughing until our stomachs ached at some nostalgic story, and nearly welling up (and actually welling up) thinking: my dear friend, who I knew when we were eighteen – just entering adulthood – and would blast “Numa Numa” to rev ourselves up for intramural volleyball games, is about to get married. Not to mention, she was marrying another friend from college, Seth, who we both met when he joined our intramural volleyball team sophomore year. This world, let me tell you.

Maddie and I in 2009:


And now:

We’ve grown up into such dignified young ladies.

The wedding was in Poulsbo, a town northwest of Seattle, on a charming farm, on a grassy knoll overlooking a forest, with mountains in the background. The scene was surreally beautiful, and despite a foggy start, the mountains “came out” (as they say here when the clouds burn off) just in time for the ceremony.


Excuse me, I think I have something in my eye.

What I didn’t expect about being in a wedding – silly me – is how many friends you make! All of the cousins and aunts and childhood friends I’d heard Maddie talk about over the years were there in the flesh. And they were just as awesome as I thought they’d be. As you can see:


Minus the dork at front left trying to be edgy with a bouquet in hand.

There was plenty of energetic dancing at the reception, despite a moment of panic when it looked like there would be a bridesmaids dance (even this, I felt, wouldn’t be enough to save me). But I did dance (that’s when the spillage occurred … ), and even requested “Numa Numa” for old times’ sake.

At 10:30, the groom helped me look up ferry times, and Amy drove us to the shore and onto the Bainbridge ferry. I barely registered the sensation of being in a car on a boat and the blurry shimmer of the lights across the water before falling asleep. The nice ferry man woke us when we arrived in Seattle by pounding his fists on the hood of our car, and we drove off into the city as nonchalantly as one can after drooling down one’s chin in a car on a boat.

Sunday through Tuesday I spent with Amy in Seattle. She boldly moved out there last November just because she wanted to (Seattle is cool, remember?), and has since found four jobs, two apartments, and a group of friends that is truly a squad, though I mock her whenever she labels them thus. Mindblowingly, Amy’s good friend and soon-to-be roommate in Seattle is also the best friend (and former roommate) of my current roommate in DC. And they all attended the University of Wisconsin, Madison, graduating the same year, though Amy didn’t know either of them then. Midwest ties sure run deep.

I had done plenty of touristy Seattle sightseeing when I visited Maddie and Seth back in 2014, so with Amy, I mostly wanted to see her neighborhood, her work, her hangouts. So that’s what we saw. In between destinations, we blasted music and sang loudly. I am terrible with contemporary music, so the joke was that I’d ask, “Is this ‘Cheap Thrills?'” every time a new song came on.  Surprisingly often, it was.  And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that we listened to plenty of Macklemore, as Seattle is his hometown.  I’ll never forget winding through neighborhoods and over the Sound, trying to keep up with the rapid fire “Can’t Hold Us,” and cracking up because we couldn’t.

Warning: I’m about to get sentimental on you (look away, Amy!): there’s nothing like being reunited with my sister. The comments on how much we look alike are fun, but beyond that, we grew up together; we know every inside joke, we’ve watched all the same movies, we have the same memories and mostly the same sense of humor. Naturally, then, hilarity ensues:

Holly: “Do you know why I called you Ice Cube?”

Amy: “Because I’m bald?”

Holly: ” … Because you’re cool.”

Holly: “I don’t think I’ve ever put air in my tires before.”

[My family likes to tell the story of coming into town for my college graduation and noticing that my Subaru was practically riding on its rims, the tires were so flat. In typical Holly fashion, I had no idea.]

Amy: “It’s like an addiction for me.”

[You see how I bossed her into doing so many chores for me when we were kids?]

I think I’ll keep her.

On Monday we met back up with Maddie, Seth, and company for a Mariners baseball game. I was mostly focused on chatting, but then, bottom of the ninth, two outs, the Mariners hit a home run and won the game! We were all jumping around and yelling. Bodes well for a happy marriage, I think.

The downside of having one’s hair done? Knowing it won’t look this nice again for a long, long time.


Now that’s how you look edgy with a bouquet in hand! Yes, she’s always been cooler than me.

REI flagship store: a magical, magical place.

I didn’t realize there was geoduck in this ice cream until I tried it and got lemon, lemon, and then something chewy and salty. Oh.

The infamous troll under the bridge. Apparently, he’s always painted a little differently. I’m a fan of the blue nose, myself.

And finally, a look at my rich inner life, via the Seattle Aquarium:

What I’m Reading

It’s been too long since we’ve talked about books! I’ve been meaning to make a summer reading list, but suddenly the summer is half over and I don’t have a whole lot to show for it.  I’ve been reading in bits and pieces — a minor book funk, if you will — and so have picked up and put down the following:

  1. The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey (I talked about it here, but haven’t actually finished. I will, I will!)
  2. Team of Rivals (someday, DKG! Too ponderous for a summer read)
  3. A Brief History of Love (I’ll circle back soon; it’s lovely, but I wasn’t in the mood)
  4. Eligible (I respect the buzz about this one, but I was feeling impatient and it didn’t grab me right away, so I gave up)

That being said, I have actually finished a few books recently, for better or for worse. Starting with the best:


Euphoria, by Lily King

Perhaps I’ve never mentioned this, but I adored the anthropology class I took in college. I took it to fulfill a “science with a lab” credit (all hail the liberal arts university), and was so enamored that I seriously considered adding it as a minor. Only the fact that I was already a junior and wanted to graduate in four years kept me from doing so.

Anyway, this is all to say that a novel based on the experiences of anthropologist Margaret Mead is right up my alley. But even if anthropology isn’t among your interests, this book will draw you in with its intelligence, its intensity, its carefully wound tension.

And because I just finished it today and can’t let it go yet, here are some bits I love:

“For so long I’d felt that what I’d been trained to do in academic writing was to press my nose to the ground, and here was Nell Stone with her head raised and swiveling in all directions. It was exhilarating and infuriating.”

“Through the windscreen I had a last look at the sea, which was rumpled and agitated, a thick muscle that would hold on tight to everything it swallowed.”


Y: The Last Man, Vols. 1, by Brian K. Vaughan, Pia Guerra, José Marzán Jr.

My graphic novel explorations continue with another Brian Vaughan collaboration (he wrote Saga, too). The concept of The Last Man is fairly self-explanatory: every man on Earth suddenly and mysteriously dies, save one. How do the women respond? How does the last man navigate this new world?

It’s a fascinating idea, and one that has the potential to explore contemporary topics of gender and sexuality. Unfortunately, what made this book an ultimate disappointment was the “last man,” aka main character. I found him uninteresting and overindulged (the narrative of a world full of women is being told by a man … uh, why?).  I wanted these books to transcend the man-centric comic book stereotype, but for me, they didn’t.


The Lost Symbol, by Dan Brown

I’ve been meaning to read this for ages, as every other person I guide around the Library seems to mention that part of The Lost Symbol is set there.  Plus, I was on the Da Vinci Code train with the rest of the world when the book first came out; do you remember how thrilling it was?

Alas, reading this book was a torturous combination of hoping it would get better and waiting for it to be over. Although the DC runaround was occasionally fun to read as someone who lives here, the actual premise was built up and built up and then a major letdown. Just go to Symbols R Us next time, Mr. Langdon.

Canaries in the Coal Mine

During these horrible times, I haven’t known what to say about what’s going on in our country. Because I hardly recognize this place anymore, though I know darkness has been broiling, hardly under the surface at all, for years. Decades. And because whenever I’ve begun to compose a Facebook post, a blog post, it has felt contrived. As if I needed to say something just to say something, just to match my eloquent friends. And sometimes, even for someone like me who loves words dearly, words aren’t enough. We can’t let them be enough. Words now must be used in tandem with action, with advocacy, with protest. I cannot abide violence in any form, but I fervently believe in peaceful protest. And protest we must, because nothing will change if we don’t change it. If we, the people of this country, don’t recognize the cruelty and injustice we allow, we generate, every single day. We must abolish this racism, this violence within ourselves and our society, and we must abolish any legislation that enables it.

Words aren’t enough, but these words are important:

We must not pretend that the countless people who are routinely targeted by police are isolated. They are the canaries in the coal mine whose deaths, civil and literal, warn us that no one can breathe in this atmosphere. –Justice Sotomayor

Stay safe and don’t lose hope. We can change this country.

The College of William and Mary, Part 2

Cue the theme music:

I knew it had to be William and Mary from the moment I first saw the campus last summer. When I realized Jamestown is a few miles away, Colonial Williamsburg mere blocks away. When I bought a sweatshirt, having not even applied yet.

When I took the call from Williamsburg, stumbling into an empty office at work to hear I’d been accepted. And then sobbed like a fool as I told my coworkers, called my parents, my sister.

When I walked onto campus last February for the open house and felt at home. With the program, the professors, the students, in the old brick history building.

It’s the place for me, in short, and I’m glad to tell you I’ll be entering their yearlong history MA program in August.

I can’t wait for this magnificent adventure to begin, but in the meantime, I’m soaking up DC, filling out forms, preparing to move, and studying for the required language exam (college German, why have you forsaken me?).

Talk to you soon.



It struck me recently, in my usual in-denial-until-the-last-minute way, that going to graduate school means leaving DC.

I took a walk at dusk today and stopped at all my haunts: the soldier on horseback pointing his copper arm at the Capitol, the dry cleaners with the pink awnings I once wrote a story about, my old row house with the Portuguese landlady living downstairs. I saw the woman with the little dog who is a Chekhov character in linen pants and a bob. I stumbled over the same broken cobblestones I always do.

It’s taken me almost three years, but I’ve built a life for myself here. I have a neighborhood, a house, work, friends, colleagues, people I recognize on the sidewalk. I have haunts.

And to leave, having struggled in earnest to get to this point, is sad.  But the other thing I’m realizing lately is that this is what life is. You build it as best you can, and then a corner crumbles away or a new life is waiting that’s better or you can’t bear to stay. We’re always moving on in one way or another.

“Life is change,” says a note from my grandfather written in my middle school graduation card. I found the card a few weeks ago, when I was in Minnesota and attempting to clean out the junk drawer I spent twenty-two years filling. If I believed in fate — sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t — I’d think that I was supposed to find that card again, now that I’m facing a similarly daunting change.

In a little over a month, I’ll be walking at dusk in a new town. And everything will begin again.

PSA: Wyndham Resorts’ “Fly Away Getaway” Flight Vouchers Scam


Yesterday afternoon I got a phone call from New Hampshire.  I ignored it, as I do most calls from unfamiliar numbers (they’ll leave a voicemail if it’s important, right? Then I can call right back).  This caller left a voicemail.  And after listening to it, I called him right back.

I had entered a drawing at a beer festival last month, hardly knowing what I was entering (it was a beer festival … ).  Apparently, the form I filled out with my name and contact information had been selected, and I had won, from Wyndham Resorts, four airfare vouchers.  One of the best prizes given out, said the man on the phone.

Now, I see you shaking your head.  Hold up on that for a second, because I can assure you, alarm bells were going off in my head, too.

But as the man talked, my prize sounded better and better.  The flight vouchers were good for two years.  We could fly to any of 31 destinations, including Hawaii, the Caribbean, and Europe. We weren’t required to stay at Wyndham Resorts when we traveled. There was no purchase necessary for me to claim my prize.  I simply needed to show up at my local Wyndham, in Alexandria, VA, show them my confirmation email and ID, and I would be given my vouchers.

And then, things spiraled.  When I picked up my vouchers, I would be given a tour.  There was no obligation to purchase anything, but they wanted to show me their gorgeous facilities and inform me about the Wyndham Club, a timeshare opportunity.  This tour would take a few hours.  I began to think of Gilligan, who never came back from his three-hour tour.  But it was just a tour, right?  Sure, they might pitch the timeshare, but I’m not one to be talked into anything I don’t want to do.  I would simply hear them out, say no, collect my prize, and leave.

I called my parents to tell them the news, which, despite what’s coming, was a happy, happy moment.  I’ve thought for a long time that if I were ever able, I would like nothing more than to take them and my sister on a grand family vacation.  We were lucky enough to take trips when I was growing up — including memorable boat trips across the Great Lakes, speaking of Gilligan — but we’d never gone anywhere really epic together, like Hawaii, the Caribbean, or Europe.  To be able to make this happen for all of us was a dream come true.

My parents have never been ones to say outright “you’re wrong” or “you’re being naive” to my sister and I.  They respect our judgment as adults, for which I am grateful.  But I could tell they were cautious, even more so when my mom texted me after we hung up: “You should google the name of the company.”  Then she sent me an article she had found on the “Wyndham Resorts Timeshare Scam.” I googled. And I found testimonial after testimonial warning against attending these timeshare pitches, including this one:

Sure we wanted to get a free gift, but the 45 minutes presentation turned into a 5 hour of guilt tripping, name calling, pushy and unpleasant meeting with a three different representatives.

The phrases “aggressive,” “insulting,” and “won’t let you leave” came up a lot.  People were pressured to disclose their salaries, relationship status, and plans for having children, and many signed up for a timeshare without reading the fine print simply to make the harassment stop.

The more I researched, the more restrictions on my prize I discovered: all travel arrangements had to be made through Wyndham; you had to stay in your destination for a minimum of days; you could choose your hotel, but from a list, meaning you would pay more than you would if you planned the trip yourself.  In fact, the high cost of lodging would likely nearly cancel out the value of the flight vouchers.

So, still a little reluctantly — the allure of a free lunch is strong — I sent an email to Wyndham relinquishing my “prize.”

Because after all, if something sounds too good to be true … well, you know.


(Photo source: Pan Am)

What I Learned From Applying to Master’s Programs


I spent three months last fall/winter applying to graduate school, and — as tends to happen when you dive into something you’ve never done before — I learned by trial and error. And by begging friends for advice/their personal statements/their souls.  And by googling.  Lots and lots of googling.

And I got in!  To every school I applied to, somehow, miraculously.  Probably because I picked a really nice font for my CV, but also possibly because of some of the revelations below.

I hope you find them useful if you’re just starting the application process. And if you’ve been down this road before, I hope you’ll shout out your advice in the comments.

What I Learned From Applying to Master’s Programs:

1. You don’t need to know exactly what you’ll write your thesis on … but you should know your area of interest. To give an example, in my personal statements, I wrote that I was interested in studying the experiences of women living in early America.  That’s pretty broad, right? But knowing even that little bit allowed me to find programs that had at least one faculty member specializing in women/gender/sexuality during that time period. Further, when I attended graduate program open houses I always asked — wringing sweaty palms in my lap —  whether I needed to have an MA thesis idea ready before classes started.  The answer I got from every single professor? Absolutely not. In summation, there’s room in an MA program to find your niche, though you can’t find a program that will suit your interests unless you know what your interests are.

2. When choosing where to apply, it’s mostly about the faculty. As I allude to above, it’s vital that you apply to programs with faculty whose interests overlap with yours. This makes sense when you think about it: you’ll need an advisor who can actually, well, advise you on things like which primary sources and scholarly writings to take a look at and which theses have already been taken (tough love, baby).  Not to mention, when it comes time to defend your thesis, you’ll want to defend it to people familiar with your topic.  The vast majority of graduate programs make it easy for you to learn about their people: websites contain faculty bios, often including lists of publications, areas of interest, and current research. Knowing that a professor is working on a really cool project you’d love to be part of is also something you may be able to mention in your personal statement, admissions interview, etc.

3. But the little things count, too.  When I first started researching schools, I mistakenly thought “atmospheric” qualities such as school size, location, and campus vibe didn’t matter as they had when I was searching for undergraduate schools.  This is graduate school, I proclaimed, I’ll be there to learn how to be a historian, nothing more.  Campus experience is for 18-year-olds. Thank goodness I came to my senses; even as a graduate student, of course I wanted to love where I was. I found that I was drawn to quirky, small schools in quirky, small communities just as I had been at 18 when I attended my beloved liberal arts university on the prairie.  Go figure.

4. Only apply to schools you want to attend. I felt some pressure, initially, to apply to as many schools as possible in order to increase my chances of getting in somewhere. I also considered applying to schools I wasn’t interested in just because they were good schools. I soon realized, however, that I didn’t want to go somewhere just to go somewhere or just because it had a good reputation. I wanted to go to a school and be part of a program I would be excited about and challenged by. I narrowed my list of schools down to five: a few I knew I could get into, a few I was pretty sure I could get into, and a few dream schools that were long shots. That’s not to say that five is the magic application number you should strive for; I have friends who found ten schools they wanted to apply to, and friends who found three.  Just make sure every school you apply to is one you would be eager to attend.

5. Make a spreadsheet to track moving parts. Applications require a lot of paperwork, and what’s even more challenging, they require paperwork from other people. Beyond crafting personal statements, writing samples, and CVs, you’ll also need to send your GRE scores, request transcripts from previous institutions you’ve attended (and if you studied abroad, as I did, doing so is extra complicated), and request letters of recommendation from former professors and employers.  Ensuring that all parts come together to meet the same deadline requires good communication and follow-up on your part.  A spreadsheet will help you stay on top of requesting, reminding, and submitting. Here’s what mine looked like (click to enlarge):spreadsheet

6. When writing your personal statement, tell your story. Several kind friends sent me their personal statements so I could get a sense for how one is written.  I was astounded by how different each person’s approach was! What ended up feeling most natural to me was to focus on telling my story. I wrote about how my undergraduate fascination with Virginia Woolf got me thinking about historic women’s perspectives, how working at the Library of Congress helped me fall in love with public history, how moving to the East Coast sparked my interest in colonial America.  Within these narratives, I found ways to play up my research and work experience.  I concluded by explaining what I hope to accomplish in graduate school (learn more about colonial women’s experiences and prepare for a career in public history), and why _____ school is the right place for me.

7. Don’t be afraid to ask your undergraduate professors/advisors/mentors for help beyond letters of recommendation. This piece of advice relies on you having maintained good relationships with your undergraduate professors/advisors/mentors.  Maintain those relationships, people! Not only for your future benefit, of course, but also because they’re good people, and trust me, you’ll want to keep knowing them after you graduate (professors’ social media posts are the best, for one thing).  After three of my undergraduate professors agreed to write letters of recommendation for me, I asked if they would mind also taking a look at my personal statement and CV. Having gone through graduate school themselves — not to mention having helped many other students through it — their advice was invaluable. And because they taught me and know me well, they could actually say things like, “You should mention this research experience,” or, “Let’s dial it back a little with the Virginia Woolf rants. You’ll scare the selection committee.”

8. Pepper the graduate directors with questions.  That’s what they’re there for.  In fact, they’re being paid extra to be a resource for potential and current graduate students. They will be happy to tell you more about the program, or to refer you to other faculty, staff, and current students who can answer your questions. I recommend you make contact with the graduate director of every program you’re applying to; they’ll always give you insight you can’t find online.  And if they’re unresponsive or unhelpful?  Well, that tells you something about the program, too.

9. Your writing sample doesn’t have to foretell your Master’s thesis.  I agonized about my literary analysis-heavy writing sample.  It was the most impressive research and writing I’d done as an undergraduate, but I was convinced it didn’t contain enough history for a history application.  In the end, the topic of my writing sample hardly mattered; programs mostly wanted to know that I could do primary source research and synthesize that research into a well-argued paper.

10. You’re a better candidate than you think you are. I’ve implied it, but let me say straight out that I was extremely insecure about my prospects as an applicant, for two primary reasons: I was an English major, not a history major (would they believe me when I said I loved history?!), and I didn’t go directly to graduate school from undergrad (would they believe me when I said I was committed to earning a graduate degree?!). I doubted myself so completely that when my phone rang and it was the William and Mary graduate director, I was utterly convinced I was about to be rejected. By phone. But to my great shock, my nontraditional route worked in my favor.  The graduate committee actually appreciated my “real world” experience, and the analytical and writing skills afforded by my English degree.

Now, that’s not to say that going straight from undergrad to graduate school is a bad idea.  In many ways it would have been more convenient to earn an MA at age 23 and to jump right into a career path I was sure about (not to mention, to do all this while still covered by my parents’ insurance … 26 is now looming). But the thing is, as a senior in college I wasn’t sure what I wanted. I needed those three years to figure it out. I’m grateful that the schools I applied to seemed to understand.

My point here: don’t sell yourself short.  If you want a graduate degree, if you’re willing to work for one, if your past experience speaks to this drive, then believe that the schools you apply to will see this.

You can do it!



How to Do Well on the GRE

College of William and Mary visit

A flashback to my first day of college in 2009. Oh, baby Holly. You have so much to learn.

Being Alone Among Others


Do you ever take yourself out on dates?

It seems like an odd notion, maybe: you’re with yourself 24 hours a day.  It’s not like you have catching up to do.

But self dates are more than your run-of-the-mill alone time.  They’re a declaration: you’re telling yourself that you deserve more than space; you deserve a treat.  They’re about indulging in things your everyday self seldom allows, perhaps because of cost, time, or amount of organization required.  Most vitally, self dates are about being in public: you’re boldly entering a “third place” where “one goes by choice to be alone among others.”

My self dates usually involve a movie or show.  Plus dinner my favorite way: nothing fancy — I don’t want to be bothered by frequent water pours and check-ins — and with a good book propped open in front of me.

I especially love to see movies in theaters by myself.  It’s fun to go with friends to the blockbusters, but often, I prefer to completely immerse myself in the story, unconcerned with who’s next to me, or who’s holding the popcorn, or who I feel the need to whisper witticisms to periodically. I like the feeling of sharing the movie watching experience with strangers as we react together, but simultaneously maintaining my own island.  I like walking out of the theater by myself when the movie is over.  If it was good, I’ll mentally try to stay in that world for as long as possible.  If it was bad, I can criticize it to myself without being disagreed with (because sometimes it’s nice to win every argument).

On my last self date I went to see Spotlight with half of a Jimmy John’s sandwich in my purse.  I hadn’t been able to finish it before showtime, and wasn’t about to let it fester in my purse for two hours, so to the shock of the elderly couple next to me, once the lights went down I took out the mound of meat and cheese.  I tried to be subtle, but it’s hard to be subtle when you smell like a deli and the wax paper wrapping crackles. The sandwich was sublime, but the truly transcendent moment was when I found I didn’t care who saw me eating contraband in a movie theater.  What’s more, I didn’t care even without a buffer of friends around me.

Last night, I took myself out to Chop’t for a salad, eaten with the Eragon in front of me.  I brought Eragon because I like it, pilfered Lord of the Rings content aside.  I didn’t feel the need to bring a more literary tome.

After dinner, I went to see the musical 110 in the Shade at Ford’s Theatre.  The play was disappointing.  Its message was that a woman is worth what a man says she is, and even then only prettiness and marriageability count.  Still, I sat rapt and comfortable, as there was no one next to me to worry over: do they think I have no taste for choosing this play? Do they actually like it? Should I pretend to? Do I have Chop’t breath?

I spent intermission listening in on the conversations near me.  I peered into the Presidential Box, and was distracted for several minutes imagining what Lincoln would think could he see this modern audience.  I perused the gift shop, taking my time over heavy biographies and dish towels with “Mr. Lincoln’s Favorite Pecan Pie Recipe” emblazoned upon them.

When the show was done, I walked slowly into the quiet air, past closed stores and over steaming grates.  I didn’t know where the Metro stop was, exactly, so I followed other folks leaving the theatre, and in this way, found what I was looking for. I hadn’t been concerned; it was a night of strolling, of neglecting Google Maps and texts and the other ways we keep track of one another.

And in this “third place,” this off track, I felt most in synch with myself.