Sophie Welling: The Unlikely Academic
Do you still believe that the only true academics are stressed-out bookworms who do not give a thought about their appearance? Then it’s high time you reconsidered your old-fashioned attitude. Sophie Welling, graduate student at the University of Groningen and one of the speakers at the Student Conference on Inter-American Studies held at the Faculty of Arts in February, is undoubtedly someone who turns all such prejudices upside down. Fun-loving and easy-going, Sophie is not afraid to share her love for the academia. Who says one can’t have it all?
Perspectives' archives (at the student conference)
Perspectives (P): Sophie, it is great to have you here, participating in our conference. Why have you decided to take part and come to Bratislava?
Sophie Welling (S): Jana Hulová gave a presentation about the conference during the summer school in Seggau this past summer. She convinced me to give it a try. And because I am truly interested in inter-American studies and there were multiple classes at my home university that were inter-American studies oriented, I already had a paper that fit the overall topic.
P: Your paper was “the most inter-American” one. Can you tell us more about your presentation?
S: My presentation was called “The Chevy, the Virgin, and the Dream: Hybridity, Heritage, and Homeland in A Better Life and La Misma Luna”. I wrote about two recent films dealing with Chicano (Mexican-American) identity. Both movies deal specifically with a wide range of issues related to illegal immigration in the U.S.-Mexican borderlands region. The original essay it was based on was a bit longer and more theoretical. I tried to keep the presentation accessible to those who had not seen the films. I originally wrote it about a year ago for a course called Identity in Post-ethnic America taught by Dr. Marietta Messmer, one of the founders of the Inter-American Studies Association. This course was a step outside of the traditional “one nation – one nationality” framework and so are these two films, which is why I decided to write about them. At first sight they both seem to be beautiful narratives of family hardships, but in essence they also deal with serious theoretical aspects of identity as a concept. If I were to choose one, I would have to admit that I think A Better Life is the better of the two films. The story centres around a father-son relationship and addresses the generational gap many immigrant families face. Carlos Galindo (the father) works hard as a gardener and wishes to accomplish his own American dream. His son Luis, however, is balancing on the edge of joining a local gang, and does not really care about being Mexican. It is a powerful narrative of a parental struggle to keep a child away from gangs and immigration agents while trying to give his son American opportunities he has never had.
P: As far as your research is concerned, what are you interested in apart from inter-American studies?
S: My true love is early American history, I guess. The fact that America is a country based on an idea is what interested me in the first place and made American studies unique for me. I’m especially fascinated with the fact that people literally sat down and wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Right now I am working on my master’s thesis about representations of the Founding Fathers and the American Revolution in film. And apart from the American-oriented disciplines I also love philosophy; I have a second bachelor’s degree in it. However, my love for American studies prevailed, so I’m doing my master’s in American studies only.
P: What do you enjoy the most about being an academic?
S: It is definitely meeting new people from all over the world, travelling and taking part in all kinds of workshops, seminars, conferences, or summer schools… it is basically the dialogue among people – even coming from various disciplines – that makes it worthwhile. With my nose stuck in books, while no longer having classes, I have been writing my thesis for a while now and to be honest, quite often I have asked myself if the “bookworm thing” is really what I want to do. But then again, after taking part in an event like your student conference, I once again realize how important the academic community is for me.
P: Where do you see yourself in ten years’ time?
S: I think I would love to stay in the academia. First I would like to get a PhD, somewhere abroad if possible. I am going to apply for various programmes. I think that I would love to teach at a university somewhere and do research. I have no idea in which country though. I am generally open-minded because there are so many interesting things in the world. I like politics, education administration and so many other things as well, so it is possible that I will end up doing something completely different. We’ll see.
P: You travel a lot. What is your dream destination that you have not visited yet?
S: This is something completely distant from my academic interests, but I would love to go to Australia just to do some horseback riding and sheep shearing in the outback or something. And I want to try canoeing in Alaska as well!
P: Can you share one special experience from your travels?
S: I think that my semester at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the USA was quite special. When I think back of Carolina an image of the baby blue colour pops up in my head immediately. Everything was that ugly colour; I even had to wear it for field hockey team for which I played. Staying in a dorm with a randomly matched roommate was quite an experience too. I am used to having my own place and in the US I ended up with a girl who could not have been more different from me. It was a bit annoying; she would never sleep or let me sleep and was into anime and every possible thing I am not really into. I learned to deal with it for a semester, but if I had stayed longer, I would have probably gone crazy, but hey, it’s an experience. Generally, I hung out with the Americans more than with the international exchange students, and ended up having the most amazing experience. I would recommend it to everyone.
P: What are your favourite free time activities?
S: I play field hockey and chess. I love country music and old rock’n’roll love songs. I used to play the violin for 10 years, but when I started studying at university, I stopped. I am currently learning to play the guitar and I am also trying to sing a bit.
P: Name three things you like and three that you hate.
S: I love my family, travelling and the academic world. And I hate narrow-mindedness and rudeness. Oh and pineapple, yep, almost as much as narrow-minded people. (laughter)
P: Who inspires you the most in your life?
S: I think it is my father. He teaches information science at university, but originally he studied history and even taught a course about the Civil War in the American Studies Department when I was still in high school. I remember him watching all these American Civil War movies, so I think my interest in American issues traces back to evenings in front of TV. He is a musician in his free time as well, and I love that. He is definitely inspirational.
P: The academics then run in your family…
S: That is true. My family has always had a strong impact on my decisions. My mother also works in academia; she works in the Pedagogical Sciences Department and focuses on the history of education. When it comes to my love for politics, it is my elder brother who influences me – he used to work for the European Union in The Hague and now works there as a government consultant on information technology (but he studied history...) And my fraternal twin sister is an elementary school teacher, so yes I do think that all three of us got influenced by our parents. (laughter)
By courtesy of Sophie Welling
P: If you were to characterise yourself in one sentence, what would you say?
S: That is a difficult question. I would definitely say that I am a dreamy, confused, yet confident kind of a person with various interests, all at the same time. I think it does not really matter to always be sure of things - I will see where life takes me. You do not have to see the whole staircase, the important thing is simply to take the first step.
Sophie Welling is currently finishing up her Master's Degree in American Studies at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. She holds two bachelor’s degrees (in American Studies and Philosophy). She spent one semester at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the USA. She took part in the Graz University Summer School “On the Americas” in 2011 and was an intern in 2012. In February 2013, she presented her paper entitled “The Chevy, the Virgin, and the Dream: Hybridity, Heritage, and Homeland in A Better Life and La Misma Luna” at the Student Conference on Inter-American Studies organised by the students of the Faculty of Arts at the Comenius University in Bratislava. She is most interested in early American history, identity and migration theory, cultural studies and political philosophy.