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A behind the scenes look at the graduate experience at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

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  • Day in the Life: Beth Ann Williams

    Beth Ann Williams is a fourth year African History graduate student. She is currently living near Arusha, Tanzania conducting research for her dissertation. In this post, take a look at what a typical "Day in the Life" looks like for Beth Ann during her research year.

    4:30 a.m.: Two weeks ago my host family acquired a new rooster. For reasons unknown this particular fellow, a giant, off-white beast, likes to crow from the beams right above my bedroom window. I stumble out in the darkness, glad no one is awake to see my in my shorts, pick up the giant stick left behind from a recent construction project in the yard… and knock the rooster down. Luckily for him chickens can (sort of) fly so the 12 foot drop wasn’t dangerous. At that point I would not have cared.

    Five months into my time conducting historical and ethnographic research in northern Tanzania, there are some cross-cultural norms I’ve settled into. I am better about greeting everyone I see, including random strangers. Bucket showers. Live stock (other than the height-obsessed rooster). Offering rides down and up the mountain. No problem. Sometimes I still feel discomfort rooted in my American sensibilities about appropriate questions, time management, and personal space. But I also enjoy the warmth and hospitality of my host culture, and the real relationships I am building with my family, research assistants, and interview subjects.

    5 a.m.: Coffee. Yes, even in rural Tanzania I start the day with coffee, usually including some milk fresh from the previous evening’s milking. In some ways I am incredibly spoiled here.

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    5:30 a.m.: The skype ringing noise will probably haunt my dreams for the rest of my days. Yet I am incredibly thankful that through the magic of the internet I can talk almost every morning with someone from home despite being halfway around the world and living in a community where most people still don’t have running water. Today it’s my youngest brother in Texas. He makes a comment about the roosters in the background, and I just laugh. Unless they are crowing directly into my window I don’t even register the noise. Actually, the cows are much louder.

    8 a.m.: Breakfast. I eat with the family, which I love. It feels so normal to sit at the dining room table, drinking chai (tea with spices and more fresh milk) and discussing our various plans for the day. After breakfast I get in my car, an unusual luxury that has been critical for getting around and accomplishing work. I wave to Mt. Meru as I drive down its slopes to meet my research assistant Glory and start a morning of interviews.

    9:30 a.m.: I’ve been at Glory’s house for over 30 minutes. She serves me (more) tea and mandazi (fried dough, kind of like a donut without the glaze). We discuss recent power outages in the area then the American election results and their potential impact on the global economy and Tanzanian immigration to the US. Eventually she gathers her purse and we can start work. Tanzania time.

    That morning Glory had two interviewees in mind. As we leave the house she calls the first woman, a local teacher who says she’s out right now, but will home later in the morning. We decide to start with her other friend, an tailor who works out of her home. Although my research focuses on gender change, asking how the local Lutheran church has affected gendered relationships and expectations since independence in 1961, the fact of my being a woman has brought me into contact with many more women. Tanzanians often make the same assumption that many Americans do: if you say gender, they think women. Glory and I have talked about getting some more men to interview. But it’s harder for her since her main contacts and closest friends are women, a fact that says a lot about the often separate spheres of life that men and women occupy despite living in the same community.

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    The tailor ended up being unusually chatty and we spent almost three hours talking about her family, education, hopes, and challenges. As we left the house Glory could tell that I was tired. My Swahili is better than when I arrived, but several hours of conversation will still drain me. We agreed to reschedule with the teacher and I left to do some reading at a local university library.

    1 p.m.: After a quick lunch of rice and beans ($.50 at the school cafeteria), I settled in to read at Lutheran Tumaini University’s library. Stifling sneezes from the dust, a hazard familiar to many historians, I read about social programs started by the church in the 1960s, problems affecting Tanzanian marriages (sadly much the same as those in the States), and arguments about if and how church leaders should try to address questions of politics. Written by theology students, the theses are often low on facts and evidence, but provide a useful look into the kinds of topics and questions future church leaders were interested in throughout the later half of the twentieth century.

    5 p.m.: My brain is fried. I pack up my bag and head to the gym. Running and (ugh) lifting weights has become vitally important, not only to combat all the tea, rice, and snacks, but also to help refresh and rest my mind after days of reading and interviewing in a second language.

    6:30 p.m.: I’m still not quite used to the later dinners here. But the extra time in the evenings provides a great chance to sit on the back porch and enjoy the kids playing. Although we only have one little kid living with us, there are 10-15 kids in the area who often end up at our house in the last hour of sunshine.

    8 p.m.: After more rice along with greens and a nice beef stew, I’m starting to feel ready for bed. After backing up my new interview recording, repacking my bag, and making a cup of tea, I check the news and read a little of Mansfield Park before turning off the lights. That darn rooster will be up early. 

    All photos are courtesty of Beth Ann Williams.

    Illinois grad students - interested in writing a "Day in the Life" post of your own? Have an idea for a blog post? Send us an e-mail at gradcomm@illinois.edu

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    Beth Ann Williams is a fourth year African History graduate student. She is currently living near Arusha, Tanzania conducting research for her (tentatively titled) dissertation, Women We Must Learn: Christianity and Gender Change in Post-Independence East Africa." While not reading or conducting interviews, you can most often find her at a coffee shop, running, or playing with whatever children happen to be in the vicinity.

  • Where Are They Now? Hannah Chan-Hartley

    Where can a graduate degree from the University of Illinois take you? In this monthly series, we catch up with one recent Graduate College alum and ask the question: "Where are they now?".

    Hannah Chan-Hartley graduated with a PhD in Musicology from the University of Illinois in 2014. Now, she works as the Managing Editor and Musicologist at the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO) in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. In this capacity, she oversees the production of the TSO’s program books and other print publications such as the subscription brochure, which includes the creation, commission, editing, and proof-reading of content. She also works with graphic designers and printers to shape the look of these publications.

    What was most surprising about your career path? Or, what has surprised you most about your current job?

    Compared to working on a PhD (particularly the research and writing), which can be a rather solitary experience (and with goals often being quite personal in nature), in my current job, I work very much as part of a team which seeks to fill an organizational mission. In producing the publications for the TSO, I have to consider the needs, goals, and desires of many stakeholders — not only those of the artistic, fundraising, and marketing departments at the TSO but also the orchestra’s musicians, artist managers (who want to ensure their artists are being well-represented), and perhaps above all, the TSO’s audiences. The concert is really the end of a whole trajectory of work that a team of us accomplish in order to give our musicians and our audiences the best experience possible.

    What is the most interesting, rewarding, and/or challenging aspect of your job?

    I feel fortunate that in my job I get to draw frequently on the knowledge and skills I gained from my academic and music performance experiences. For example, my familiarity with the music and the history of classical music in general is quite essential to the task of editing content for the program books. But I’ve learned a lot on the job as well—in working with many graphic designers and printers, I’ve come to feel strongly that something like a well-designed program book can help elevate the live concert experience.

    I recently oversaw the redesign of our program books which included the opportunity for me to explore an idea I had for some time: to create graphic listening guides of major classical music works to help audiences better understand the structure of these pieces. I’ve completed twelve of these now—to my surprise, they began to receive a lot of attention worldwide (including recently winning a design award). It is rewarding to see that my idea is resonating with people and that they are eager for new and different ways to understand the art form.

    What has been the most valuable transferable skill you gained from graduate school?

    Honing my communication skills, through writing and teaching, and learning how to adapt the presentation of complex information for different types of audiences. For example, in my role as editor of the TSO’s program books, I aim to find a balance in the content I create or edit, making sure that it appeals to a broad audience—from a first-time symphony goer to a long-time subscriber with a deep knowledge of classical music. To this end, my previous experience teaching music history to music and non-music majors in particular has significantly shaped my approaches.

    What experiences made an impact on your career choices?

    My husband and I were both PhD students at the University of Illinois when the 2008 financial crisis happened. At the time, we were still a few years away from completing our degrees, but as the years unfolded, seeing the academic job market freeze or even shrink, while simultaneously get very competitive with the growing numbers of graduates entering the hunt, we felt compelled to be proactive about our future. Ultimately, we decided that what was most important to us was to live in a city, one that offered a broad range of cultural and intellectual stimulation as well as job opportunities. Thus, for a myriad of reasons, we felt Toronto was the place for us and we moved in 2011, despite having no certain prospects.

    In making the decision to move to Toronto, I think we had to be open to the possibility of not working in academia; while the city is home to several major institutions, jobs are nevertheless very limited. It would be unrealistic for us just to wait until academic positions became available. Thus, I think we had to keep an open mind about our career options. We’ve been very fortunate so far to find stimulating and fulfilling work in which we’re able to directly apply our academic experience in non-academic settings.

    What is one piece of advice you would give to graduate students at Illinois?

    Keep an open mind about what kind of career will make you feel stimulated and fulfilled…and remember it’s okay if it’s not in academia. When you’re immersed in the rigors and “culture” of graduate school where you’re honing your research and teaching skills for years, it’s easy to get into the mindset that you’re only fit for an academic career, or that a career in the academy is the only one worth having. For some, a career in academia may indeed be the path. But the reality is that there are more qualified candidates than tenure-track jobs available. Few will get these jobs immediately out of graduate school; more likely, some will spend some years in one (or more) post-doctoral programs, or move from one temporary teaching position to another, often in different cities. Meanwhile, other life factors will likely come into play (e.g. the career of your partner/spouse, children) that will affect the direction of your career. Taking a holistic view of what matters to you (as well as being adaptable and flexible) will be important in helping you make decisions that will better meet your needs, desires, and life goals.

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    This interview is part of the monthly Grad Life series called "Where Are They Now?" which chronicles the career paths of recent Univeristy of Illinois Graduate College alumni. This interview was conducted by Derek Attig. Derek is Assistant Director for Student Outreach in Graduate College Career Development. After earning a PhD in History here at Illinois, Derek worked in nonprofit communications and instructional development before joining the Career Development team. A devotee of libraries and all things peculiar, Derek is currently writing a book about bookmobiles. 

  • Giving Names to the Dead: Building the Philippines' First Skeletal Reference Collection

    Matthew Go, PhD student in Anthropology, spots it tucked into the foundation of a building on the grounds of a cemetery in Manila. An old rice sack, bulging in place and covered in dirt and grime, partially decomposing. Inside, a jumbled collection of bones showing their age and exposure to the elements.

    Matt and fellow Illinois Anthropology PhD student, Amanda Lee, spent last summer in Manila creating the world’s first reference collection comprised exclusively of contemporary Filipino skeletons. Their salvage archaeology work and the new collection, housed at the University of the Philippines Diliman, may potentially help identify victims of criminal cases, mass disasters, mass fatality events, and mass graves throughout Southeast Asia.

    Originally from the Philippines, Matt moved to Canada for his undergraduate degree and received Canadian citizenship while studying there. Then, he came to the U.S. to pursue his PhD in forensic anthropology under the guidance of Dr. Lyle Konigsberg, Professor and Head of the department. With the encouragement and support of the Graduate College Office of External Fellowships, Matt applied for and received the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council’s (SSHRC) Doctoral Fellowship in May of 2016. The award, one of Canada’s most prestigious, comes with four years of funding to support Matt’s graduate work in Manila.

    Forensic anthropologists estimate the biological profile of unidentified skeletons, which reveals demographic details about them – sex, age at death, ancestral affiliation, and so on. Reference collections – archives of skeletons of people with known identities – help anthropologists to calibrate and verify that their profile estimations are correct. Reference collections are popping up all over the world, yet these do not cover the full range of variation that exists in the human species.

    “In undergrad, I was initially interested in human bone biology, but didn’t want to study it from under a microscope at a distance. That felt detached from the real lives of people,” Matt said. “Forensic anthropology is an applied discipline. It has immediate benefits to the community that the skeleton belongs to – either to families of the missing, or to victims of crimes and disasters. The societal benefits are very proximate.”

    The community Matt hopes to impact with his work is important both personally and professionally. There are currently no adequate reference libraries for Filipino skeletons and very few for Southeast Asian populations. Filipinos are a very important demographic not only in the Philippines itself, but also as prominent members of the global workforce.

    “There’s less than a handful of research that’s been done in terms of Filipino skeletal variation,” Matt said. “Being Filipino, I saw a gap in our understanding that I felt I was in a very unique position to fill. That doesn’t make my work easier, but it definitely makes it more fulfilling.”

    With funding from his SSHRC fellowship and the Illinois Anthropology department, Matt and Amanda were able to start the first-ever Filipino skeletal reference collection during the summer of 2016. Matt collaborated with city and cemetery administrators in Manila to recover abandoned remains that still have known identities. These remains come from “niche tombs”, part of an outdoor mausoleum. This type of burial is primarily for low-income families and the initial lease for the niche tomb is only five years long. After this time, if the next of kin does not renew the lease, the cemetery has to empty the niche tomb to make room for the next burial-in-waiting. When this happens, if the families do not claim the remains, the bones are put into the rice sacks and they are supposed to be buried in a mass grave. Because of limited resources, this rarely happens.

    These bones often end up being forgotten and neglected, according to Matt. Because of the Philippines’ tropical climate, many of the bones had begun to disintegrate from exposure and lack of care by the time Matt and Amanda found, collected, and cleaned them. The most recent deaths in the collection are from 2010; the oldest is only from 1989. The longer ago since an individual has died, the less likely that their skeleton will be complete and have a tombstone with identifying information.

    Matt hopes that the reference library will be invaluable in developing methods to identify remains when natural disasters strike as is inevitable in the Philippines, the most typhoon-hit country in the world.

    “When a typhoon does hit, the marginalized [people] are the most susceptible to becoming a fatality. Typhoon Haiyan for example claimed more than 7,000 people in 2013, and there was very little effort to identify them because of the sheer number of people who died,” he said. “I left the Philippines when I was 17 and I’m grateful to bring my education and opportunities back with me and contribute to my home country in a meaningful way.”

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    Caitlin Edwards is the Communications Specialist at the Graduate College. She's currently pursuing a Master's of Science degree in Tourism Management at the university. Her research focuses on sustainable community development through tourism and in her free time, you can find her traveling, cooking, and exploring with her husband, Adam, and their handsome dogs, Rose and Torbin.