by Gabrielle Kotkov, Class of 2010
I remember two things from the Fall Convocation of our freshman year, in September 2006. I remember the Vassar Student Association president telling our class to relish every moment of our four years at Vassar because before we knew it, one of us would be up there addressing the Class of 2013. That blew my mind-2013. It seemed light years away. The second thing I remember is President Hill, in one of her first speeches as the new president of Vassar College, advising us to try new things-to take a course in a subject we found intimidating, to take up a new activity, to learn a new language. When I started college, I had no idea what I wanted to major in. I only knew that I had wanted to study the Italian language since I was about eight years old, and I was finally going to be able to do that.
Other than my desire to take Italian, I had no academic plan. I dabbled in English and drama my first semester, then decided I wanted to branch out and try subjects I knew nothing about-cognitive science, media studies, religion, linguistics, astronomy and art history. To be quite honest, at the end of freshman year, I felt confused and aimless. I was enjoying my random melange of classes, but I was still clueless about what to major in, and I envied my friends who seemed to have everything figured out. I decided to keep taking Italian, which I adored as much as I thought I would, but worried about what I could possibly do with my life if I majored in Italian.
Although I felt like I was floundering at times, in the past four years I’ve taken classes in 14 academic departments. I eventually did decide to major in Italian, with a minor in art history. But some of my favorite classes have been those I added on a whim during the first week of the semester in departments I never considered when I sat in the Vassar Chapel in the fall of freshman year. I’ve written a research paper about women’s baseball during World War II and observed three-year-olds’ speech patterns at the on-campus nursery school. I mastered the Martha Graham-style dance contraction and spent an entire semester analyzing costumes, hairstyles, and sets of Hollywood movies from the ’20s and ’30s. I couldn’t possibly have seen it then, way back in freshman year, but the greatest gift Vassar has given me has been the freedom to create my own education-to force myself to push past confusion and explore new fields.
No, I still can’t tell you what I’ll do with my degree in Italian, but thanks for asking. I can, however, have a conversation in what is quite possibly the world’s most beautiful language. I can explain why Italians never drink cappuccino after 10 a.m. and why they never use Parmesan cheese on a seafood pasta dish. I can serenade you with 136 memorized lines from Dante’s “Inferno” or transport you to Manhattan’s Lower East Side with an excerpt from my historical fiction thesis inspired by my Sicilian family’s immigrant past. Somehow, out of semesters of confusion and a hodgepodge of classes, I gained some clarity. I accepted the fact that my undergraduate major doesn’t need to determine the course of my entire life, and I delved into a whole array of disciplines. Somewhere along the line, I let go of the idea that I had to have a plan, and just enjoyed the ride.
Sometimes things do fall into place. In the words of Dante Alighieri, “E quindi uscimmo a riveder le stelle” – and thence we came forth to look again at the stars.