For Faith Clarkson ’22, the Path to Becoming a Historian Runs through Hollins

Faith Clarkson

As she wrapped up her high school career, Faith Clarkson ’22 wasn’t sure what she wanted to study in college. But, after visiting Hollins University’s website, she was convinced she had found the perfect school to guide her.

“It just seemed like they had a lot of options. I could go and figure out there what I wanted to, and I thought that would be a really good thing for me,” she recalled. “When I came to visit, that settled it.”

Clarkson’s approach her first year was to “take a lot of diverse classes. I wanted to get a taste for everything.” But nothing clicked until the first semester of her sophomore year.

“I took African American History with [Ruth Alden Doan Assistant Professor of History] Christopher Florio and I just completely fell in love with it. I’ve always been interested in history, but Professor Florio’s class just changed my whole outlook on the subject. We were being taught history in a different way than you are in high school. It’s not just memorization of dates and such. I fell in love with African American history in particular and then I just could not take enough history classes. I’m so fascinated with it.”

Clarkson considers Hollins’ history department “one of the best. There are a lot of different aspects of history you can take. They all get into the nitty-gritty of analyzing the people and understanding the trends.” She cited both Florio and Associate Professor of History Rachel Nuñez for their expertise in “introducing students to primary sources and trying to create arguments and gain different perspectives from those sources. It’s in line with my ideas about history and how it should be studied.”

Applying those lessons and philosophy, Clarkson took on her first major research project during her sophomore year: “Interpretresses: Native American Women Translators in Colonial America.” She became intrigued with the topic after her class on American colonial history read a book about Pocahontas. “The author talked about how Pocahontas had worked as a translator for some of the colonists while she was being held captive. I thought that was interesting and did a little more research on it.”

Clarkson discovered other women who served as interpretresses at the time. “It gave them a lot of privileges, but it was also a difficult life, obviously, because they had to live in between these two cultures that had a lot of antipathy toward each other.” With help from Florio, Nuñez, and Wyndham Robertson Library, she began in earnest researching a full-fledged paper. “It’s always a difficult process to find sources, especially from that far back. Often you have to do a lot of digging. You also have to take into account what people thought about Native American women at the time and the fact that you don’t agree with those attitudes. You have to extrapolate what you can from those sources.”

In celebration of her work, Clarkson won the Wyndham Robertson Library Undergraduate Research Award in 2021. As one judge commented, “By filling historical gaps and giving a voice to the people pushed to the margins, this essay brings into the spotlight three exceptional Native American women translators. The author of the essay took on a challenging topic and produced successfully a well-written and well-articulated text supported by in-depth research. Bravo!”

This winter, Clarkson got the opportunity to write in tandem with one of her professors. “I’m from Pittsburgh, but as a Hollins student I also try to keep up with what’s happening in Roanoke.” She was dismayed when she learned that Roanoke’s city council had passed an ordinance that made camping or sleeping on downtown sidewalks a misdemeanor subject to a $250 fine. “I thought it was awful, and Professor Florio reached out to me and asked if I wanted to work on an op-ed piece with him about it.” Clarkson and Florio each wrote different sections and worked together through emails. “It was interesting. I’d never written collaboratively with anyone before and it was really cool to have that feedback and input. We came up with a unified response against the ordinance.” The article, entitled “The Crime of Poverty,” was published in The Roanoke Times in January.

Clarkson’s interest in the city that has been her home for the past four years has also manifested itself in her senior thesis. “I’m looking at the history of the civil rights movement here in Roanoke. It’s not talked about a lot, and many people, especially here on campus, don’t know how much happened in the 1950s and 1960s that is still affecting the community here today. Urban renewal, for example, is one of the issues I’m focusing on.”

With a goal of completing a Ph.D. in history after graduating from Hollins, Clarkson is taking part in the Berkeley History Ph.D. Pipeline Program, an initiative sponsored by the University of California that “aims to empower a new generation of historians and scholars.” She meets online weekly with Ph.D. students and professors of history at Berkeley. “We talk about what goes into applying for and participating in a Ph.D. program. I’m hopeful that the mentorship and this program are going to help me decide where I want to go.”

Clarkson emphasized that she wouldn’t even be considering a Ph.D. in history in the first place if it weren’t for the history department at Hollins. “I am really, really grateful for all the professors I’ve worked with over these four years. That has stuck out to me as one of the best things about Hollins. They’ve helped me develop the skills that I’ve used to get this far.”