Stories including art history

La Dolce Vita

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.

To Vassar, the Apple of My Eye

I think of my past four years at Vassar like I think of an apple. One of those light green and burnished red ones whose colors mirror the leaves’ transition from summer to fall. A honey crisp, maybe, that tastes sweet, is not too grainy and has a good bite-just the right amount of lingering tartness. Like eating a honey crisp, I have devoured the sweetness and tartness of Vassar over the past four years: pierced the skin of the apple of knowledge, bitten into the smooth flesh that lies beneath and pondered the remaining core and the perfect wholeness of the seeds.

I came to Vassar right before apple season. Arriving from Colorado, I was struck by the fields and fields of apple trees near campus. The abundance of apples that came in the fall was a kind of miracle to me: so many kinds, so many tastes. My classes were equally diverse and delicious, each like a new variety of apple. I studied anthropology, sociology, art history and English. I learned how to think and ask questions about the origins of ideas; their many tastes; how to cut into them, parse and divide them; and how to relate these slices to each other. I discovered the joy of slicing into an apple to savor its sweet, juicy, tart essence in every bite. After a period of tasting-searching for the juiciest bite into the wisdom I sought-I eventually fell in love with culinary anthropology and French. I delighted in thinking about the intersection of culture and food and became addicted to the taste of the word “pomme” (the French word for apple) rolling from my tongue. Professors would pluck apples from the highest branches of trees that I could not yet climb on my own and pass these pieces of wisdom down to me. They pushed me to strive, taste, seek, discover and cultivate my own orchard of apples.

The apples grew. I fertilized them with joyous, sun-dappled afternoons spent listening to my friends play fiddle in the Vassar orchard; cat naps between bouts of intense studying, reading and writing in the chairs of the Vassar library; and classes that left me hungry for more. I watered my trees with occasional tears from the pains of growing and learning and sweat from the heat of getting boxes up and down four flights of stairs on move-in day. I discovered new varieties of apples during my junior year abroad in Paris, France, where I fell in love for the first time, strove to make a perfect tarte aux pommes and learned about living in another culture. When the lower branches of my trees leafed out and started to bear fruit, I shared what I had learned with other students who were hungry to discuss knowledge: how to write a better paper in the Vassar College Writing Center or another way to get at the core of culture as an Anthropology Department academic intern. The spring days were long, lingering and sweet, and my trees blossomed.

And, now, too soon, I have come to my last season at Vassar. I will not be here in the fall when the apple trees again bear heavy, ripe fruit. I will be in Arizona, where there are fewer apple trees, making pastry at a restaurant in Flagstaff and satiating my taste for life in the Southwest. My little crop of Vassar apple trees goes with me. I have tasted the sweetness of the knowledge of the Vassar community, and I will never stop hungering for the crisp, sweet-tart taste of learning something new.

I think of Vassar and the taste of apples fills my mouth.

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