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At Home in the Humanities

The Baker-Nord Center provides guidance and a sense of community to undergraduates

By Arthur Evenchik

Fall | Winter 2019

Through its undergraduate programming, the Baker-Nord Center has sought to build a sense of community among humanities students. From left: Associate Director Brian Clites, Administrative Director Maggie Kaminski and Director Peter Knox; Baker-Nord Scholars Richard Pannullo and Claire Howard. Photo by Mike Sands.

When Claire Howard enrolled at Case Western Reserve in 2016, she had already decided to major in history. She owed her love for the subject to an inspiring high school teacher, who had helped her acquire a strong foundation of general knowledge. Now, she was eager to delve into specifics—especially with regard to women’s history, the field she was most passionate about.

With equal enthusiasm, Howard also became a pre-med student, combining a heavy schedule of science courses and labs with her history classes. But this, too, was something she had planned on from the beginning. In fact, she had chosen CWRU precisely because it offered her “the best of both worlds.”

What Howard hadn’t planned on, though, was the doubtful response she sometimes received from other students when they learned she was majoring in a humanities subject. Nobody questioned the value of being on the pre-med track, which leads (if all goes well) to a highly respected, lucrative career. But what was the point of earning a history degree? And didn’t the requirements for her major distract Howard from the courses that really mattered?

Such misgivings are common these days—and not just at Case Western Reserve. Peter Knox, the Eric and Jane Nord Family Professor in the Department of Classics and director of the Baker-Nord Center for the Humanities, points out that humanities enrollments at four-year institutions have declined sharply since the recession of 2008. Faced with economic insecurity and rising college costs, many students and their parents regard a humanities education as a risky venture. A degree in science or engineering seems eminently practical. But the same is rarely said of a degree in history, classics, philosophy, English, modern languages, art history or religious studies.

Luckily, Howard soon connected with peers and faculty members who shared her devotion to humanistic studies. She belonged to the first cohort of Baker-Nord Scholars, a group of incoming students who had expressed an interest in the humanities when they applied to the university. These students met with Knox for a weekly colloquium the semester they arrived on campus. They became part of the intellectual life of the Baker-Nord Center, attending lectures and speaking with visiting scholars and writers. In subsequent years, Howard and other Baker-Nord Scholars would volunteer as Humanities Ambassadors, speaking at admissions events for prospective students and providing guidance to incoming undergraduates.

Her involvement with the center, Howard says, has made her feel at home in the humanities at CWRU. It has also influenced the way she thinks about her future. This past summer, just before the start of her fourth year, Howard changed her mind about going to medical school. But instead of feeling adrift, she is excited about potential careers related to medicine, such as health care administration. She’s confident that the skills and experiences she has gained by studying history will serve her well no matter what opportunities she pursues. In the meantime, she is busy with her senior research project: a study of women’s lives in Cleveland after the Civil War, based on an anonymous diary she found in the archives of the Western Reserve Historical Society.

A Growing Commitment

Howard’s story illustrates a larger theme: the Baker-Nord Center’s growing commitment to humanities students. Since its founding in 1996, the center has achieved recognition for its public humanities programs and its cultivation of interdisciplinary exchanges among faculty members. But thanks to significant additional investments by the Nord family and its foundations, including the endowment that helped attract Knox to the university, the center has broadened its mission to include active engagement with undergraduates. Soon after his arrival in 2015, Knox collaborated with Peter Whiting, associate dean in the College of Arts and Sciences, and Richard Bischoff, the university’s vice president for enrollment management, to launch the Baker-Nord Scholars program. Two years later, he recruited an associate director—Brian Clites, an instructor in the Department of Religious Studies—to focus on the center’s outreach to students.

The center’s undergraduate programming, Clites explains, serves three objectives: community building, career exploration and intellectual growth. Participation isn’t limited to students in traditional humanities subjects; those majoring in the performing arts, and those pursuing interdisciplinary majors with a significant humanities component, are also welcome. Moreover, students who didn’t enter the university as Baker-Nord Scholars can still benefit from many of the center’s initiatives, including a number of career-oriented activities known as Humanities@Work.

That name was first applied to a series of panel discussions that Gillian Weiss, associate professor in the Department of History, proposed and then organized with the center’s support during the 2016–17 academic year. Weiss invited physicians, lawyers, business executives and public officials who had earned bachelor’s degrees in the humanities to tell student audiences about their pathways to success.

Once Clites took over the program in fall 2017, he began adding sessions about employment fields that students might never have considered. One panel this fall looked at careers in the entertainment industry, from screenwriting to publishing to marketing. “Careers for the Common Good,” now an annual event, highlights opportunities in the nonprofit sector. This year’s speakers, three young alumni working in education or social services, were all former volunteers at the university’s Center for Civic Engagement and Learning, whose associate director, Adrian Griffin, recruited them for the occasion.

Clites and Maggie Kaminski, the Baker-Nord Center’s administrative director, have also applied the Humanities@Work brand to workshops on topics such as writing a personal statement for law school and deploying social media in a job search. In addition, the center and the office of Post-Graduate Planning and Experiential Education, directed by Drew Poppleton, jointly fund stipends for humanities students who have secured unpaid internships. Since 2016, they have awarded a total of $75,000 to 43 students, one-third of whom have completed internships outside the United States. Drawing on the expertise of Lisa Grisez-Shullick, assistant director of Post-Graduate Planning, the center also advertises internship opportunities and campus visits by high-profile employers.

Fatima Rahman. Photo by Mike Sands.

Fatima Rahman, an international studies major, grew up in an immigrant family in New Orleans. Before summer break began this year, she received a grant made possible by a gift from Ellen (WRC ’75) and Matt Feldman (WRC ’75) and administered by the Baker-Nord Center. As a result, she was able to accept an unpaid community outreach internship with Immigration and Refugee Services at Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans.

Rahman mainly worked with new arrivals or people facing deportation. Her duties included producing and distributing “Know Your Rights” fliers, helping clients obtain affordable legal counsel and inviting them to take classes where they could learn English and prepare for citizenship exams. Because of her family’s experience (they came to the United States from Honduras), Rahman empathized with the population she served. The summer, she says, was both emotionally draining and “super rewarding.”

Her choice of major, with a focus on Latin American history and international development, was influenced by her immigrant background, Rahman says. “My coursework has helped me gain a historical understanding of why people are treated the way they are and what has caused these crises to happen to begin with,” she explains.

Rahman belongs to a cohort of students from New Orleans who matriculated at Case Western Reserve in 2017 through a continuing partnership between the university and the Posse Foundation. While completing her bachelor’s degree, she hopes to begin working toward a master’s degree in nonprofit management.

The Baker-Nord Center has found another ally in the university’s Office of Corporate Relations, headed by Associate Vice President Anne Borchert. Over the past two years, Borchert has hired three Baker-Nord Scholars as marketing interns. She has asked local business leaders to appear on Humanities@Work panels. In 2018, she introduced a group of humanities majors to members of CWRU’s corporate visiting committee—senior executives from major companies with headquarters or operations in the Cleveland area. It was a speed networking event, allowing each committee member to talk briefly with every student.

“Our executives were blown away,” Borchert recalls. “They were amazed at the quality, the thoughtfulness, of these students.” Many of the committee members come from firms that routinely hire science and engineering graduates from CWRU. But now, they could see that the university also produces students whose analytical, interpersonal and communications skills make them ideal candidates in areas such as human resources, government relations and strategic planning. As Borchert tells it, the executives “walked away saying, ‘This is a part of Case Western Reserve I hadn’t known about.’”

A former English major herself, Borchert has always wanted to do more for humanities students at the university, and she says that her partnership with the Baker-Nord Center has given her the chance. In mid-October, she joined Clites and Kaminski at a meeting with 30 humanities faculty members to discuss ways to help their students navigate the job market. For instance, corporate leaders are telling Borchert they need graduates who excel at teamwork. By building group projects into their courses, professors can offer students experiences that will demonstrate this skill to potential employers.

A Time for Exploration

Along with Humanities@Work, other components of the center’s programming have evolved under Clites’ leadership. Each fall, for example, he arranges for faculty members from every humanities department to introduce Baker-Nord Scholars to the cultural institutions of University Circle and Greater Cleveland. Professor Daniel Goldmark, director of CWRU’s Center for Popular Music Studies, led a tour this year of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum; Knox and Assistant Professor Evelyn Adkins from the Department of Classics accompanied the students to a Great Lakes Theater production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and initiated a discussion about the enduring Western fascination with ancient Rome. Clites himself boarded a city bus with several of the students on an October evening to attend the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards ceremony in Playhouse Square.

In perhaps his most rewarding role, Clites serves as a supplemental advisor to Baker-Nord Scholars and other students who find their way to the center. Often, he says, undergraduates are surprised to learn that they can choose from more than 35 humanities majors and minors, including interdisciplinary offerings such as women’s and gender studies. Clites wants his students to know their options and feel free to explore them.

Aleksa Sorgatz received a Baker-Nord stipend for an unpaid internship at the Art Institute of Chicago this past summer. She now has a position as a curatorial assistant at the Cleveland Sculpture Center. Photo by Mike Sands.

As these students soon discover, however, Clites doesn’t limit his advising to academic matters. “He’s been helpful to me in coming up with ideas for summer internships to apply for, and ideas for my future,” says Aleksa Sorgatz, a Baker-Nord Scholar since 2017. As a result, she has felt motivated to seek such guidance from other faculty members as well: “I ask them questions I might not have approached them with before.”

Sorgatz came to CWRU to study cognitive science, but she was also considering a minor in art history. After she took some introductory courses, which included weekly visits to the Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA), she declared art history as a second major. The Baker-Nord Scholars program, she says, was a source of encouragement: “Having a group of people who were committed to the humanities was reassuring for me.”

With the center’s support, Sorgatz became an intern at the Art Institute of Chicago this past summer, conducting art-making activities for children and families and helping them plan their journeys through the museum. Currently, she is a CMA student guide and a curatorial assistant at the Cleveland Sculpture Center. Yet she isn’t necessarily heading toward a museum career. “Lately, I’ve been thinking about nonprofit work more broadly,” she says. “I am starting to get to know that world.”

Meanwhile, Sorgatz has enjoyed the intellectual adventure of recognizing  connections between her two majors. In art history, she has studied with Robson Junior Professor Maggie Popkin and other faculty members who incorporate cognitive research into their scholarship. And in the cognitive science department, her courses with Institute Professor Mark Turner and William Deal, the Severance Professor in the History of Religion, have shown her how cognition relates to human culture and creativity. “I’m always able to take examples from art history and weave them into my cognitive science classes,” Sorgatz says.

Jasmine Cuenca. Photo by Rick Reinhard.

Third-year student Jasmine Cuenca did a great deal of writing last summer. As an intern on Capitol Hill for Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, she drafted letters to constituents and produced summaries of briefing sessions attended by congressional staff. Developing her writing skills had been one of Cuenca’s goals when she decided, during her sophomore year, to major in history along with sociology. She knew that she would need those skills in law school. But once she arrived in Washington, D.C., she put them to immediate use.

For Cuenca, a recipient of a Baker-Nord stipend that covered her living expenses, the internship provided an education in social welfare, education and public policy. One of the briefings, for instance, examined why many schools are failing to provide effective services for children with dyslexia. Another looked at the impact of social media and the Internet on the mental health of African American youth, while a third featured a panel of college students who had experienced homelessness. All of these topics were of interest to Cuenca, whose future plans aren’t limited to a legal career. She hopes to earn a master’s degree in social work and spend a couple of years in that field before attending law school and becoming a public defender.

Cuenca can imagine returning to Washington someday, but not as an elected official or a permanent congressional staffer. Instead, she would lobby members of Congress for causes she believes in. 


Establishing Ties

Early this fall, nearly 100 Baker-Nord Scholars, including 30 new students, gathered for a welcome reception in the center’s seminar room. Sorgatz and Howard were there, and so was Richard Pannullo, a theater major who will graduate this May. The event reminded Pannullo how he felt when he entered the program in 2016. “It gave me something to be proud of—something to identify with,” he says. “It was definitely a factor in my decision to attend CWRU.”

From the start, Pannullo says, “the center influenced me to realize my strengths in the humanities and helped me get on my feet as a student.” He recalls asking Clites for advice about finding a job on campus or elsewhere in Cleveland. Clites told him about the marketing internships in Anne Borchert’s office and helped him build a resume. Although Pannullo had no background in marketing, he got an interview and made a case for himself, citing his communication skills and his ability to pick up any other skills he might need. Borchert chose him for the position.

Later, as a member of a humanities-based seminar that Clites was teaching, Pannullo undertook a research project on theater criticism. Soon, he was going to plays all over town and reflecting on the reasons why performers connect—or fail to connect—with audiences. The experience, he says, gave him a broader context for his work as an actor.

After his sophomore year, Pannullo learned of a visiting student program at New York University. If he spent a semester in the program, he thought, he could begin establishing ties with New York’s theater community. Pannullo won approval for this plan with letters of support from Clites and theater instructor Christopher Bohan, his major advisor. While in New York, he joined several graduate-level theater students at NYU in developing UPDATE, a piece that blends acting, music, improvised movement and light projections. Thanks to a Baker-Nord grant, he returned to the city this October to perform in a production of UPDATE at the New York International Fringe Festival.

During the center’s welcome reception, Pannullo was excited to learn that Aparna Paul, a third-year student majoring in English and chemical engineering, is leading an effort to create a formal peer mentoring program for Baker-Nord Scholars. “There were all sorts of opportunities, in that roomful of humanities students, for people to lead one another and say, ‘I’m in your field; let me guide you through this,’” Pannullo remarks. “It’s really cool to see them taking on a teaching role, creating connective tissue between the older and newer generations of students.”

Hanna Paris. Photo by Katie Han.

This fall, Hanna Paris is spending two afternoons a week interning with the Model United Nations program at the Cleveland Council on World Affairs. The program invites local middle and high school students to develop their research and debating skills by taking part in simulated UN proceedings. For one of her first assignments, Paris wrote a background guide about the UN Environmental Programme. The project suited her interests as an international studies and political science major with a minor in environmental studies.

With the Baker-Nord Center’s support, Paris has accepted a total of three unpaid internships. She spent the summer of 2018 at the Scarborough Marsh Audubon Center in her home state of Maine, conducting educational programs for children and leading visitors on kayaking expeditions. The next summer, she had what she calls a “jack-of-all-trades internship” with Catholic Charities Maine, tackling projects in communications and marketing, immigration and refugee services and behavioral health services.

Once she graduates in 2021, Paris is thinking of earning a master’s degree in international relations or working in the nonprofit sector. Through her summer internships, she says, “I wanted to get a grasp of the impact that a nonprofit can have on a small scale and to understand what a potential job might look like.”

At this stage, Paris doesn’t feel “pinned down to one specific career.” She says that her coursework, including classes in religious studies, history and philosophy, has given her broadly applicable skills, including the ability to think critically and approach issues from diverse perspectives. Such an education, she explains, “opens you up to multiple possibilities.”




Page last modified: November 12, 2019