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My W&L: 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.

Hometown: Fluvanna County, Virginia (Charlottesville)

Majors: European History, German Language

Minor: Women’s and Gender Studies

Extracurricular Involvement:

  • Alpha Delta Pi
  • Women’s Club Volleyball
  • German Club

Off-Campus Experiences:

  • Berlin Spring Term Abroad
  • Virginia Governor’s Foreign Language Academies
  • Languages for Rockbridge

Post-Graduation Plans: Currently applying for PhD programs in early modern German history as well as a master’s program in Germany

Favorite Class: It’s a tie between “The Age of Witch Hunts” with Professor Brock, “Queering Colonialism” with Professor Tallie and “Anti-Semitism in German Literature” with Professor Youngman

Favorite Lexington Landmark: Has to be the Southern Inn! I work there about three nights a week.

What’s your passion? Historical research, especially digging up religious and gender conflict within the ordinary social classes, not the elites, but how the conflicts of the early modern period affected people’s everyday lives.

What’s something people wouldn’t guess about you? I like researching really sad, dark topics. I’m a very happy person and always happy to talk, but I like learning about the more disturbing aspects of our history.

Why did you choose your major? I always wanted to be a history major (weird, I know), but I chose German because an alum once told me that the best thing I could do was keep going past the language requirement and become fluent in a language. It was his biggest regret from college and now, four years later, the German department has become my home at W&L. The language skills I have acquired here have made me stand out in the grad school application process and opened doors for me to study abroad.

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What professor has inspired you? I can’t pick just one. Professor Youngman in the German department has taught me not to take life too seriously and enjoy the time I’ve had here in campus. The times I’ve spent with him in the classroom, as his work study, and abroad in Berlin have been some of the most poignant of my time here at W&L. I met Professor Brock last year and immediately claimed her as my major and thesis advisor. She showed me that history can be so exciting, that studying things like witchcraft is not totally weird, and that the study of history can be ridiculously compatible with current events.

Advice for prospective or first-year students? Don’t be afraid to major in something that’s not “practical.” The writing, reading, and analysis skills I’ve learned through my study of humanities will serve me well as an educated adult. Also it’s great for trivia night.

What do you wish you’d known before you came to campus? I wish I had known how fast it all goes. Sitting here staring my last semester in the face is frightening and wildly exciting. I’m excited to see what’s next, but I wish I had a few more semesters here at W&L.

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