In the late winter of 2020, Aysia Brenner ’21 was among the undergraduates from Hollins and other colleges and universities across the nation enjoying what for many is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: spending a semester studying abroad. As a second-semester junior, Brenner arrived in Paris in early February and lived and studied in France until mid-March, when she and other students abroad were suddenly told they would have to return to the U.S. due the spread of COVID-19.
Thirteen months later, Brenner is able to look at the bright side of an abroad experience that was all too short. “I still had a month and a half in Paris. It would really have been a bummer if I had got there and then a week later had to go home.”
Fortunately, Brenner is getting the chance this fall to go back to France and in many respects finish what she started last year. Beginning in October, she will spend seven months with the Teaching Assistant Program in France (TAPIF), a program of France Éducation international. Recruiting and promotion of TAPIF is managed by the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in the United States, and participants receive a monthly stipend that covers most living expenses.
“They usually get about 2,000 applicants for roughly 1,500 American English language teaching assistant positions, which are located in elementary and secondary schools throughout the country,” Brenner explained. While she’s still waiting on confirmation on the specific town or towns where she’ll be teaching, she does know the school district: the Academy of Versailles (L’académie de Versailles) near Paris, part of the Île-de-France academic region. “I’ll be working at the primary school level, which I’m excited about. I could be helping out at one or more schools.”
Brenner’s work and life in France will be aided considerably by the fact that she is conversationally fluent in the French language. “I’ve had about two and a half years of formal instruction here at Hollins, and interacting with my host family while I was abroad last year did so much to improve my fluency.”
Before going to Paris, Brenner, a history major and art history minor, was already intrigued by the possibility of engaging in an international program after earning her degree, thanks to Assistant Professor of History Christopher Florio. “He was constantly sharing with me different opportunities that I could pursue after graduation, from the Fulbright Program to teaching fellowships. I’m really grateful he did that for me.” Brenner ultimately decided that she might want to have some kind of abroad experience before she stared applying to grad school. “Once I got home early from Paris and was getting closer to my senior year, I started looking at various options more closely with Professor Florio. That’s when I discovered the specifics of the TAPIF program and I applied last October.”
Florio’s guidance is one example of the “really great support” Brenner noted she has received throughout her undergraduate career from the history department faculty. “[Associate Professor of History] Rachel Nuñez is my advisor and the professor I’ve known the longest since I’ve been at Hollins. I knew I was going to study history when I enrolled here, but taking her first-year seminar confirmed to me it was the right choice.” Brenner was particularly drawn to 18th century American history as her field of study, but she said Nuñez’s frequent focus on European and world history broadened her interests. “Her classes fascinated me and helped me connect what I knew about U.S. history to more of an Atlantic world history.”
Brenner is devoting her senior thesis to exploring late 18th century constructions and understandings of patriotism and national identity, and she said Associate Professor of History Peter Coogan “has been a really great help with editing the different chapters and helping me make the broader connections between each individual chapters.” She will showcase one of those chapters at the Student Performance and Academic Research Conference (SPARC) on May 8, an opportunity for all Hollins undergraduate students to present academic research or creative work to the larger campus community that has been completed under the guidance of a faculty or staff member.
Brenner will present the second chapter of her thesis, “‘And can I then but pray/Others may never feel tyrannic sway?’: Patriotism and National Identity in the Writing of Phillis Wheatley.” The 18th century poet was the first African American and first enslaved person in the American colonies to publish a book of poems. “Wheatley broadly challenged mainstream life and constructions of patriotism and national identity that worked to keep out African Americans,” Brenner explained. “A lot of my work has been exploring how she appropriated the rhetoric that many of the white founding fathers such as Thomas Jefferson were using to exclude them from the national body. She worked to turn that rhetoric on its head and argue not only for her and other free and enslaved African Americans’ inclusion in the nation, but also for the abolition of slavery.”
In researching his writings, Brenner found that Jefferson echoed the common belief in colonial America that patriotism was the sole provenance of white men. “In writing and publishing her poetry, Wheatley served as a counterargument to that idea. She reclaimed the humanity denied to her and other African Americans, and forcibly brought the contradictions and tyranny of slavery to the attention of a white public who would have preferred to keep them buried under their own purely rhetorical use of slavery. Because she had been enslaved, she didn’t want anyone else to experience oppression.”
“Among the foremost strengths of Aysia’s thesis is her approach to writing intellectual history,” said Florio. “She embeds her study of some of the biggest historiographical subjects – patriotism, national identity – in people and place; hers is an analysis of ideas grounded in lived experience and the energy of the times in which the ideas emerged. Her thesis is expansive in its scope, attentive to both ideas and experiences, and written with a broad and sophisticated understanding of the transatlantic ages of revolutions. This is an exceptionally ambitious and successful thesis.”
Each year, Hollins recognizes students for high academic achievement during its Honors Convocation. This spring, Brenner received the Mary Williamson Award, which is presented for the best study submitted in the field of humanities. She was also just inducted into Phi Beta Kappa.
“Aysia is quite simply one of the brightest students Chris Florio and I have ever encountered,” said Nuñez.
When she returns from France next spring, Brenner plans to begin her graduate school search in earnest. “My ultimate goal is to earn my Ph.D. Obviously, I’m interested doing my own research, but teaching history students is what I’ve wanted to do in some form for a long time. I want to be a college professor. And, I want to teach at a small liberal arts college like Hollins because I had such a great experience in the Hollins environment.”