Vassar Stories

What’s Your Major, Lily Elbaum?

Photo: Karl Rabe

Lily Elbaum, Class of 2016

Hometown: Evergreen, CO

What’s your major?

I’m a medieval and Renaissance studies major with an English correlate.

When I came to Vassar, I had no idea what I wanted to major in. During my freshman year, I declared as an Italian major. During my sophomore year, I applied for an independent major but was turned down, so I switched to international studies, and then political science. Finally, I moved to medieval and Renaissance studies with a correlate in English.

What generated your interest in Medieval and Renaissance Studies?

It really began before I came to Vassar. I took a gap year in Norway after I graduated from high school and was introduced to Norse tales and legends there. During my freshman year at Vassar, I read Beowulf, and in my search for a major in my sophomore year, I learned more about the curriculum for medieval and Renaissance studies and decided it fit what I was most interested in studying.

Can you name a favorite course you’ve taken here?

During my sophomore year, I took a course called “Detectives in the Archives,” where I learned what Vassar has in the library’s Special Collections. There are some old manuscripts that date back to before and just after the invention of the printing press, a page of the Gutenberg Bible, second and third Shakespeare folios – there’s lots of cool, old stuff. That intrigued me, and knowing how to find that material has really helped me in pursuing my major.

Another thing I like about the major is that you can work with your advisor to tailor it to your specific interests; you can slant it toward literature or toward history or whatever combination you want. I was able to map out my own course plan with courses in English, history, media studies, and Italian and craft the major I wanted.

Will you be doing a senior project?

Yes, my senior thesis is a translation of an Old Norse saga, a bridal quest romance from the 13th century.

How did you learn Old Norse?

I became fluent in Norwegian during my gap year and began studying Old Norse then. Old Norse is not quite as far removed from modern Norwegian as Old English is from English, but there are some significant differences.

How did you choose this particular tale?

Last year I was awarded Vassar’s John B. Schwartz Memorial Prize, which enabled me to travel to Denmark for research for three weeks during the summer before my senior year. I searched for Old Norse tales at the Arnamagnaen Institute of Norse Studies at the University of Copenhagen and found the tale there.

What other activities are you involved in at Vassar?

I’ve been a member of the sabre squad of the fencing team all four years, and I’ve been involved in the Vassar Haiti Project. Both activities have been really valuable experiences. They have helped me to be more confident in my own abilities as well as providing me with valuable leadership experience. Working with the Vassar Haiti Project and getting to travel to Haiti has been a very special, meaningful experience that has re-shaped the way I see the world.

What are your plans after you graduate?

I have been accepted into master’s programs in medieval studies at three universities, and I plan to attend the University of Toronto.

How would you describe your academic experience at Vassar?

I’ve probably done a lot more trial and error in my search for a major than a lot of people here. I have friends who declared pre-med and stayed pre-med and declared computer science and are graduating as computer science majors. Mine was more of a journey to find out what I really wanted, and I don’t regret any of it. During my search I took courses in astronomy, chemistry, media studies. I’ve sampled a lot of the curriculum.

What’s the value of a liberal arts education?

The most important thing, especially here at Vassar, is that you learn about things with a global perspective and not in a vacuum. When you take a wide spectrum of courses, you begin to see patterns emerge. You can study medieval history one semester and modern political science the next, and you notice some themes that are common to both. If you focused strictly on political science, you’d miss that.

And a liberal arts education teaches you how to think. I know that’s a cliché, but it’s true. Through interaction with your professors and other students, you’re constantly being encouraged to challenge other people’s ideas, to learn that there are other perspectives. This has led me to have conversations that weren’t always comfortable but that were necessary. Maybe this isn’t unique to Vassar, but it’s certainly part of the culture here. You’re taught to question everything. 

Posted Thursday, April 14, 2016