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‘Pay Forward the Kindnesses’ Melissa Yorio '21 has received support from many corners during her college career, so when the pandemic broke out, she found a way to give back within her hometown community.

DSC8638-scaled-800x533 'Pay Forward the Kindnesses'Melissa Yorio ’21

“While I come from a loving family that has supported my academic career, as a first-generation college student, I would never have been able to follow my passion and continue my studies in graduate school without the guidance of my advisors.”

~ Melissa Yorio ’21

Hometown: Palm Coast, Florida
Majors: Classics, Medieval and Renaissance Studies (MRST)

Q: Why did you choose to attend W&L?

There were so many reasons why I choose W&L! Rigorous academics, generous financial aid and extraordinary opportunities inspired me to apply, but after visiting campus, I knew that W&L would be the best place for me. W&L’s campus, with its brick buildings and history, made me feel like this is a place where good things could happen and that I could better myself. Simply put, as a first-generation college student, W&L was what I had imagined college to be. Four years later, I can verify it was a great decision!

Q: How did you settle on your areas of study?

I initially came to W&L hoping to be a business major. I quickly changed my mind after taking a number of humanities courses. Many of my Foundation and Distribution Requirements fulfilled my Medieval and Renaissance Studies major, which I believe demonstrates that my interests in the medieval period are innate. I declared my Classics major later in my W&L career. I became involved in the Ancient Graffiti Project after my first year, and the project was so fascinating to me that I wanted to continue contributing to it. I started taking Latin, and then Greek and other Classics courses. When combined, my majors have allowed me to gain a broad understanding of the history, literature, art and religion of the pre-modern European world.

Q: You’ve had some incredible international opportunities while at W&L. Will you first tell us about your time in Pompeii?

My work with the Ancient Graffiti Project (AGP) started after my first year at W&L. The AGP is a digital humanities project that documents hand-written wall inscriptions from the first century AD. During Summer 2019, I joined the project team in Pompeii for their field school. With them, I learned how to appropriately document, photograph and measure ancient handwriting. The data we collected is being published on the AGP website.

It was an incredibly eye-opening experience. My supervisors were accessible and supportive, and it was fun and inspiring to be able to explore Pompeii with fellow Classics students from other universities.  My favorite moment was when I had the opportunity to record a drawing of a gladiator on a column, which showed the time and thought that an ancient person had put into their drawing. To be able to be a small part of a project that sheds light on a piece of writing or a figure nearly lost to history has brought me so much joy and fulfillment.

Q: What did your Spring Term Abroad experiences in Scotland and Ireland mean to you?

I loved both my Spring Term Abroad experiences. In my first year, I studied the history and culture of Scotland through its theatre, and the class was led by Professors Michelle Brock and Jemma Levy. It was the first time I traveled abroad without my family, and it made me feel very independent. I was exposed to different theatrical genres and experiences, which broadened my understanding of theatre as an art form. The class also focused heavily on the history of Scotland, and we visited sights of importance such as Edinburgh Castle or St. Giles Cathedral. Whether we were hiking in the highlands or watching a play about a Scottish devil named Nick, this class introduced me to intricate intersections between religious belief and identity, which has continued to inspire my academic interests. My favorite moment would have to be the night we went to a Ceilidh dance in Glasgow and learned traditional and very fun dances!

My experience the following year in Ireland held its own wonders and surprises. In my class, which was taught by professors Marc Conner and Alexandra Brown, I studied the literature and religion of the West of Ireland. Ireland, like Scotland, is another place where identity was once determined by religion. The class read poems, plays and novels to grasp Irish identity as presented in literature.

The religious studies portion of the class resonated with me quite a bit as I already had an interest in religious identity, but the connection between religion and the physical geography of the West of Ireland added another element to my understanding of their religious practice. One day, my class hiked Mt. Brandon, which is part of a traditional Irish pilgrimage that emulates the Camino de Santiago. It was incredible to think about how many others had climbed the same path I did looking to find peace.

When I reflect on my class in Ireland, I always feel especially fortunate to have been able to have that experience when I did. In the months prior to my Spring Term Abroad in Ireland, I was going through personal hardships and feeling dejected and angry. Of course, being with my classmates in a lovely place did lift my spirits, but Ireland was an immensely healing experience because I met an elderly monk named Brother Sean. Without ever being told about the pain I carried, Brother Sean somehow knew what had happened to me and comforted me. I get goosebumps when I think about how much solace I found in Ireland with Brother Sean and my classmates, and it truly did change my life. By the way, I still keep in toucher with Brother Sean. He likes to send me photos of baby animals.

Q: How did your four faculty advisors—Richard Bidlack, Rebecca Benefiel, Michelle Brock and Melissa Vise—influence your path at W&L. 

My “W&L story” revolves around the sage advice my advisors have given me since Day 1. Professor Bidlack, who was assigned to be my first-year advisor, welcomed me to campus as all advisors do, and he sat with me during Orientation Week and talked to me about classes I was interested in taking. It was my sincerest intention to be a business major when I came to W&L, but I really wanted to learn Italian and take an early modern history class. Professor Bidlack encouraged me to take the classes I desired, and he convinced me that I could study history in addition to another major. Perhaps Professor Bidlack’s advice seems small, but without his encouragement I may never have followed my passion, and his advice fundamentally changed my path at W&L.

The class that Professor Bidlack encouraged me to take happened to be taught by Professor Brock. In this History 101 class, Professor Brock made history exciting and engaging. Professor Brock has always emphasized the importance of studying history so that we may apply what we learn to our contemporary society. She now serves as my Medieval and Renaissance Studies major advisor, and throughout my academic journey, she has given me thoughtful advice. It was during my first year, when I studied abroad in Scotland with her, that Professor Brock introduced the idea of me going to graduate school.

While Professor Brock was on sabbatical my junior year, I had started to think about writing an honors thesis during my senior year. I knew that I wanted to focus on the relationship between gender and religion in Medieval Italy, but I was not sure where to start. I looked through the MRST faculty’s profiles, and I came upon Professor Vise’s, and we shared many of the same interests. I emailed her randomly and she met with me, and after meeting with me once, Professor Vise agreed to serve as my Honors Thesis advisor. I often think about how kind it was for Professor Vise to have agreed to guide me through this elaborate process when she barely knew me. She helped me when I needed to redesign my project due to travel restrictions caused by COVID-19. My project now studies the development of the religious practices involving Virgin Mary due to outbreaks of the Plague of Justinian, and despite the difference between the original project and my current one, Professor Vise has been a resource and ally.

Throughout the course of my four years at W&L, Professor Benefiel has always been an advisor, advocate and supporter for me. My first year at W&L, I completed my work study in the Classics Department, and I met Professor Benefiel there. Through my time working, I spoke to her about my Italian language classes. That summer, Professor Benefiel invited me to work on her project, the Ancient Graffiti Project, because I could use my knowledge of Italian to complete the proper forms. She taught me about ancient graffiti and the Classical world, and she instilled in me the importance of elevating forgotten voices of the past. I accompanied her the follow year at the AGP Field School in Pompeii, which was a truly unforgettable experience. Professor Benefiel treats her students with kindness, and she recognizes that education and kindness have an incredibly powerful impact on people’s lives. This can be seen in the impact she has had on mine. I hope that one day I am able to pass on the care and consideration she has shown me.

Without my advisors, I never would have reached the place I am in today. W&L’s faculty are truly talented and caring people. While I come from a loving family that has supported my academic career, as a first-generation college student, I would never have been able to follow my passion and continue my studies in graduate school without the guidance of my advisors.

Q: Tell us about your work during the pandemic with Tutors for Tough Times.

When we were sent home last March, I felt powerless to be able to help the people around me. So many people were using their talents to aid others like former nurses returning to work or a recreational sewer stitching cloth masks for their neighbors. I thought about how I might be able to help my community of Flagler County, Florida, and I realized that I could help students and teachers in my community by creating an additional option for educational support. Tutors for Tough Times offered tutoring over Zoom to K-12 students for free. Each of the schools in my county is a Title I school, which means that they have large concentrations of low-income students. It was amazing to be able to recruit college students that had formerly attended Flagler County schools to be tutors. I coordinated the program, and among the eight other tutors and myself, we were able to serve about 30 students! The experience was extremely rewarding as it allowed me to help my community. I was able to pay forward the kindnesses I have been shown during my education, whether that came in the form of a supportive teacher or a generous scholarship.

Q: What do you plan to do post-graduation?

I’m currently in the process of deciding which graduate school to attend in the fall. I have three wonderful options, including Master’s and Doctoral programs, and I have been awarded funding at each school. I will know where I’ll be heading in about a month!

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More About Melissa

What is your personal motto or favorite saying?
Since the pandemic started, my new motto is “flexibility is the new strength!”

What’s your favorite shop or restaurant in Lexington?
Napa Thai

What do you get there?
Pad veggie with chicken

What’s your favorite spot on campus?
A small classroom on the second floor of Tucker Hall that overlooks the Colonnade

What book or film do you recommend to everyone?
“The Song of Achilles” by Madeleine Miller

Favorite W&L event?
Orientation Week is my favorite time of year. It’s so nice for upperclassmen to welcome the incoming class!

Favorite place you’ve ever been?
The top of Mount Vesuvius! It has a beautiful view of the entire Bay of Naples.