The Columns

My W&L: Kelly Douma ’16

— by on September 5th, 2016

Kelly Douma '16

“Friend groups are everywhere, traditions are most places, but the caring professors and impassioned students I have found in the German and History departments are one of a kind.”

“Don’t become a lawyer by default” read the sign on the door to Commons. During the cold days of Winter Term 2015, I must have walked past that sign a dozen times a day. Every time, my eyes would compulsively read it and my mind would flick to the “LSAT for Dummies” book in my bedroom. That slogan, continually in the back of my mind as I trudged across the snowy Colonnade, served as a turning point in my time here at Washington and Lee. I entered college as the typical over-achieving first-year, knowing that my end goal was being accepted to law school and laying the groundwork for a successful legal career. That little poster threw me completely off kilter.

After struggling with that slogan for a couple weeks, I approached my German advisor and work study boss, Professor Youngman, and told him I had changed my mind about law school. He laughed at me and was excited that I had finally discovered what he had already guessed: I was not passionate about law school and was limiting myself as a result. My first two years I had narrowed my studies and trajectory into a solitary goal. Being knocked off this one-track mind was the best thing that could have happened to me. Rather than looking at my classes as a means to an end and a chase after the perfect GPA, I have really begun a journey for knowledge. I stopped going through the motions in my history classes and rather dove head-first into the subjects that I love. I took up a Women and Gender Studies minor because gendered history and feminist theory are something that I am passionate about. Releasing myself from the end goal of law school made me realize exactly what I love to do — read, write, learn, and teach. It sounds simple enough, but the relaxation I felt after accepting what I love and forgetting the implication of “practicality” changed my long library nights from frantic paper-writing to a deep consideration of what I was reading and why I wanted to write. That’s not to say that my majors have grown easier since this self-realization — I also decided to undertake an honors thesis, something which promises to be the hardest challenge of my W&L career.

I’ve heard it said many times that here at Washington and Lee, you don’t major in a subject, but a professor. I’m going to change this a bit to say that I’ve majored in people. Specific professors have been immensely important to me, but it is the home-like feeling of the departments I’m involved in that have made my academic journey so special. Professors Brock and Tallie in the history department have been indispensable on this grad school application journey, encouraging me, being honest with me, and cheering me on every step of the way. The German department as a whole has become my family. We’re a small group, but I don’t know any other group of majors that will willingly organize a BBQ with each other and spend the entire afternoon chatting around the lunch table. It’s the unity of the academic communities that has differentiated my time at Washington and Lee. Friend groups are everywhere, traditions are most places, but the caring professors and impassioned students I have found in the German and History departments are one of a kind.

I hope Career Services knows the impact of that little poster on the Commons door. Sometimes it only takes a few hundred readings for the message to really penetrate, and when it does, so many other doors are opened.