Michelle Fikrig ’18 majored in art history and combined her scientific interests with art historical research. While at Oberlin, she was also involved with the student literary arts magazine, the Plum Creek Review and Students United for Reproductive Freedom (SURF).
After completing her honors thesis with Assistant Professor Matthew Rarey, Fikrig is now working on a master of art history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with the goal of earning a PhD.
Can you describe what you are currently doing at UNC Chapel Hill?
I’m in my first year of what will either be a two-year degree or longer depending on if I stay on for a PhD. My day-to-day life is mostly filled with coursework, but I’m also a teaching assistant so I get to develop lesson plans and have a lot of grading that punctuates my seminar work. Graduate school is very self-motivated, so I spend a lot of my time at the library or at the local coffee shop getting through readings and coming up with research proposals for various papers.
Why did you major in art history at Oberlin?
Originally I was a biology major, but I switched to art history my sophomore year at Oberlin. I felt confident making that switch because I realized that I could incorporate the reasons I was interested in a career in the sciences, mainly reproductive and queer rights advocacy and health care, into art historical research.
For my honors thesis at Oberlin, I looked at South African visual activist Zanele Muholi’s photographic archive of queer black women around the world, which got me thinking about how identities are formed visually and how community activism can be translated through art. At the graduate level you get a lot more freedom in the research you can conduct for each class, so I’ve been able to explore these types of topics more deeply, which has been really exciting to me. It’s also helped me realize how varied art historical research can be, and that I can carve out a niche for myself that resonates with those themes of advocacy and bodily autonomy that I was interested in.
How did Oberlin help you build skills for academic, personal, and professional success?
I truly think that Oberlin prepared me really well for graduate school. I remember being so nervous about my first seminar at UNC, but after class, I called my old roommate from Oberlin and remember excitedly telling her, “Wait, that wasn’t so bad! It was literally just like an Oberlin seminar!” Oberlin’s seminars set me up to know how to deal with large workloads, how to lead class discussions, and how to effectively utilize the resources around me. I think one of the reasons I feel so comfortable in my seminars now is that I feel confident reaching out to my professors and to the librarians here—skills that Oberlin really instilled in me from the beginning.
The honors program in art history was also really helpful in teaching me how to devise, plan, and follow through with a large independent research project. I feel much more capable of tackling longer research papers now that I have accomplished a project of that scope.
The relationship I built up with my advisor, Assistant Professor Matt Rarey, working on that project served as a really good model for how I interact and work with my professors at the graduate level. Working on my thesis with Professor Rarey made me feel like his colleague rather than just an undergraduate student. That boosted my confidence in my research and in myself as a scholar. I’m still actually using that research from Oberlin, and it informs a lot of my thinking about current projects. I recently even presented it at a Global Feminisms conference at UNC.
What extracurricular activities or student organizations were you a part of at Oberlin?
The two main student groups I was a part of were Students United for Reproductive Freedom (SURF) and Oberlin’s literary arts magazine, the Plum Creek Review. Working with any student organization teaches you a lot; I learned a lot of management skills, how to navigate bureaucracy, and how to engage my peers. I’ve been using these skills at UNC as a member of our graduate student organization, but they’ve also helped me in various internships I’ve held. I’m no longer working directly on reproductive rights issues like I did while I was the cochair of SURF at Oberlin, but knowing how to work within tight time frames, work with other departments or student groups, and how to advocate for myself have all made me a more effective team member during internships.
Do you have any advice for students interested in a similar field/career path?
I think this is true for a lot of career paths, but don’t be afraid to take your time. I took a gap year before Oberlin and then another year before starting my master’s. I’ll honestly probably take some time off again before jumping into a PhD. Some of my colleagues that I think are most successful in my department took time off before returning for their graduate degrees.
I think time away from academia has made me a stronger applicant and it has been hugely influential on my views as a scholar. I traveled, did my own research, and got valuable work experience during those years “off—although I think that’s a misnomer. Most importantly, I built connections. Immersing myself in places outside the academic bubble helped me build a network of like-minded professionals in a variety of fields that I can learn from and rely on for years to come.
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