Humanities, Communications, and Philanthropy: What I Learned Sharing the Barbour Scholars Story

By Elizabeth Harlow, Doctoral Candidate, English Language & Literature

As the University of Michigan commemorated its bicentennial in 2017, one of its most storied programs also marked the major milestone of its 100th anniversary. I spent last summer learning and telling the history of the Barbour Scholarship as a Mellon Public Humanities Fellow on the Rackham Graduate School’s Development and Alumni Relations team.

What is the Barbour Scholarship, you ask? One of the university’s oldest, most prestigious, and most uniquely impactful awards, the Barbour Scholarship has supported female students from Asia since 1917. The program was founded during an era when women’s access to education and presence in the public sphere lagged in the U.S. and abroad. It was also a moment of intense anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States, with harsh animus directed toward people from Asia. The Barbour Scholarship helped make U-M an early pioneer in internationalizing education, especially for women and nonwhite international students. Over the past century, over 700 extraordinary women from more than 25 countries have been selected as Barbour Scholars. Alumnae include university presidents (including China’s first woman to hold such a title, Yi-fang Wu), high-ranking UN ambassadors, and leaders and innovators in fields ranging from physics to social work.

Barbour Scholars, 1930-31

As a fellow, it was fun to learn their stories. I built upon previous work and conducted my own research to write a history of the program, prepare a commemorative centennial booklet, and develop content for the Barbour Scholars website. I pored through physical and digital archives at the Bentley Historical Library, hunted down books from overseas, and tracked Barbour alumnae across the internet. Some of the work involved meticulous scrutiny of tiny details, as I combed through and hunted down sources to improve the accuracy of the complete historical roster of scholars – a task complicated by incomplete program records, mixed reference to maiden and married names, and shifting spelling conventions for English rendering of Asian names. Some of my work called for drawing connections among major events of world history to contextualize campus developments and alumnae stories. It was, in short, a thoroughly academic process leading to a public product.

Bentley Historical Library

It invigorated me to write to an audience beyond a niche of specialists in a subfield, and specifically to a group of women with personal investment in what I had to share. In addition to being archived in the Bentley for future historians, the booklet will be distributed to all living Barbour alumnae. Many Scholars don’t know much about the distinguished history of their program; over the years, some have written to Alumni Relations expressing a wish for access to that information. I sought to interest, offer critical nuance, mark a celebratory milestone, and help Scholars feel connected — as they are — to a very special community. Finding stories, telling stories, creating connections among people: those are abilities the humanities cultivate, and they’re valuable anywhere.

I’d applied for this fellowship largely for a change of pace from academic work and for a chance to learn more about alumni affairs and university development, so I was surprised by just how much the work offered me as a scholar. The research component of my fellowship underscored the fruits that come from stepping outside one’s own disciplinary confines. Throughout my internship, I periodically emailed myself and my advisor with nuggets to remember for future teaching and research, such as names and bios of acclaimed Asian writers who worked in English but have missed attention from many U.S. English departments — women like Pura Santillan-Castrence — all with Michigan connections!

Elizabeth Harlow, Doctoral Student, English Language & Literature

As I produced commemorative material, I cultivated skills beyond those traditionally involved in humanistic research, including collecting and preparing quantitative data for infographics and collaborating on messaging. I worked with Rackham’s communications and web teams to coordinate print and digital materials, as well as to enhance the Barbour Scholars website with newly digitized archival images and streamlined content. Having worked in communications before beginning graduate study, these skills were familiar to me, and I was able to bring professional experience as well as research knowledge to the table. This combination helped me make judgments and recommendations that balanced an academic’s sense of responsibility to thoroughness with a digital communicator’s demand for something pithy and pretty enough to keep a reader from clicking away.

I also enjoyed interacting with colleagues in Rackham, especially as a complement to long hours of isolated reading in preparation for my preliminary exam. I learned quite a bit about the workings of a university development office from participating in staff meetings and gained especially valuable perspective from conversations with my supervisor, Jill McDonough, who earned a PhD in my department before beginning her career in the world of fundraising. Overall, the experience enhanced my existing interest in philanthropy as a field, and I followed my summer experience with a course in the School of Education on Philanthropy and Higher Education in the fall.

In the short run, the practical and academic knowledge I’ve gained about the development field and the Barbour Scholars program has already enhanced my scholarly work at the nexus of literature and the institutional history of the American university. In the long run, I feel that the Public Humanities Fellowship has been the most professionally valuable thing I’ve done in my PhD so far. My work last summer has demonstrated concretely the versatility and potential for interaction among what are often considered separate “academic” and “nonacademic” skillsets. These didn’t feel separate, in practice: I enjoyed integrating a spectrum of techniques and contexts at my disposal for analyzing information, managing a multifaceted project, and sharing stories in thoughtful, audience-centered ways to foster a sense of community.

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