Cornell’s first Africana studies Ph.D. among newest grads

Marsha Jean-Charles was 15 years old when she read a novel that would start her on the path to making Cornell history.

“Breath, Eyes, Memory” is a semi-autobiographical novel by Edwidge Danticat. Like Jean-Charles, Danticat is Haitian-American and grew up in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, a neighborhood known as Little Haiti.

“That was the point of my own personal socio-cultural and political awakening,” Jean-Charles said. “Often for marginalized people, literature is one of the few venues in which people see themselves and feel understood.”

Now a scholar of contemporary literature by Haitian women, Jean-Charles on May 25 became the first Ph.D. in Africana studies from Cornell. Wearing a stole of Haiti’s flag, she was recognized along with approximately 300 other doctoral candidates in Barton Hall at a festive Ph.D. hooding ceremony.

“Most of my work is about how literature is deeply political,” Jean-Charles said, “especially when the people writing it are regularly confronting systems of oppression with and within their work.

“My dissertation committee has always been really amazing and supportive and has consistently had my back,” she added. “So I’m particularly indebted to them – especially Carole Boyce Davies [professor of English and Africana studies].”

Cornell launched New York state’s first Ph.D. program in Africana studies in 2013. Two other Africana studies doctoral candidates – Oluwakanyinsola Obayan and Nadia Sasso – participated in the hooding ceremony but will graduate later this year.

“It represents years of intellectual engagement and research, fueled by a fierce determination to discover and demonstrate something new, to elucidate something no one else has ever examined in quite the same way,” he said. “On behalf of the faculty, I wish you continued success in your careers and look forward to hearing of all your future achievements.”

President Martha E. Pollack followed, noting that this turning point will divide everything in the graduates’ lives into “before” and “after.”

“Everything that happened until today happened when you were a student – a scholar in training, as it were,” she said. “But from this point onward, you are a full-fledged member of the community of scholars.”

The graduates are now experts in their specific fields of research – fine-grained traffic management in computer networks, hobbyist collectives and the maker movement, gastric squamous-columnar junction carcinogenesis, and the historical phonology of Manchu dialects, to name just a few.

They’re also experts in a few other things that will serve them well in life, Pollack said. One of those things is tenacity. Finishing a Ph.D. requires incredible tenacity, and tenacity has a few prerequisites of its own, she noted.

Tenacity requires patience – “something that’s in short supply today,” she said. And it requires self-confidence, the willingness to keep going even when the experiment fails or when the conference paper is rejected.

“In those moments,” Pollack said, “you need self-confidence to say, ‘Well, that idea didn’t work out, but I’m going to try my next idea anyway – and it will be a success.’”

Tenacity also requires passion: “In fact, I think that passion may be the single most essential requirement for anyone setting out on the intellectual marathon we call writing a dissertation,” she said.

Passion is to a Ph.D. what feet are to a bicycle. “Without passion on the pedals,” she said, “you aren’t going anywhere.”

Tenacity also requires the support of others, Pollack said, whether they are advisers, committee members, officemates, friends or family.

Pollack ended her address with a request: “Remember the role that kindness has played in bringing you to this point – and bring that kindness with you. Share it with others, as you go forward from here. Congratulations to each of you – and welcome to the club.”

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