Taking Leave

on January 30 | in Featured | by

Hollins’ mission statement holds that the university “sustains talented students engaged in challenging study, and productive scholars and artists devoted to teaching and the advancement of knowledge.” For decades, study abroad and sabbatical leave programs have enabled students and faculty to enjoy this crucial support beyond the Hollins campus.

By Jeff Hodges M.A.L.S. ’11

Jill Weber (communication studies) and Rachel Nuñez (history) received tenure in 2014 and took their first sabbaticals the following academic year. Seniors Hilla Haidari and Maya Rioux spent their junior year studying abroad. Shortly after returning to campus, all four women reflected on how taking leave helped them grow personally and professionally.
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Maya Rioux ’16: “Going abroad makes you adaptable”

Maya RiouxWhile taking a theatre course in London, Maya Rioux ’16 didn’t anticipate that a classically trained performer would encourage her to pursue a career in acting. She couldn’t have guessed she would overcome a language barrier to bond with an elderly Italian couple in a Venice train station. And she never dreamed that taking part in a Dublin literary pub crawl might open the door to a diplomatic job. Yet those and other spontaneous moments distinguished the year she spent studying abroad, first in Paris and then in London.

The first of the many surprises occurred in the fall of 2014, when Rioux started classes in Paris. “I thought that the Hollins Abroad experience would be similar to a larger university’s abroad experience. You would go, you would take your classes, you wouldn’t necessarily enjoy them, you were there to travel and have a good time. What I wasn’t expecting was to meet some of the most interesting people in my classes who happened to be my professors.”

As a student in Hollins’ inaugural London Theatre Semester during the spring 2015 term, Rioux had as one of her instructors Ellis Jones, past director of England’s Royal Academy of the Dramatic Arts. For the Acting Shakespeare class, Jones welcomed a renowned stage actor who had performed with such luminaries as Sir Laurence Olivier and Dame Maggie Smith. Each member of the class had memorized and prepared a Shakespearean sonnet, and Jones stunned Rioux by asking her to perform her piece before their guest.

Icons“I was of course shaking after hearing this actor talk about working with all these amazing people. But after I finished he said, ‘You know, you have remarkable presence. Ellis told me you weren’t necessarily looking at acting as a career, but it’s a phenomenal thing to have presence whether you’re on stage or in a room of people.’ That’s one of the highest compliments I’ve gotten from anyone, ever.”

Rioux also relished the ease and economy of European travel. One of her favorite travel moments occurred while she was venturing solo from Venice to Zurich. While she waited for her train in the Venice station, an older couple sat next to her. “The woman spoke to me in Italian for about 20 minutes. I didn’t want to be rude so all I did was nod and say, ‘Si.’ Her husband had gone to get an espresso and when he came back, he immediately realized what was going on. He said something to her and she just started laughing. He then said to me in simple English, ‘She had no idea you didn’t speak Italian.’

“When my train came, his wife patted my hand and pointed to it. They waved to me from the platform as the train left. Had I not been traveling alone, I probably wouldn’t have had such a genuine experience.”

When a friend who accompanied her on a weekend trip to Ireland fell ill, Rioux toured the Dublin watering holes frequented by such famous authors as James Joyce and Samuel Beckett. “I love Ireland and want to live there, and during the pub crawl I met someone who worked for the Irish Embassy. I mentioned that I wanted to pursue a career in the foreign service, and he said, ‘Well, if you ever move to Ireland and become a citizen, look me up and we’ll chat about whatever you want to do.’”

She believes her yearlong abroad experience is helping her persevere during a hectic and pressured senior year. “I think I’m a lot more tolerant of things. Living in different cultures, you meet a lot of people from different parts of the world. It almost instills in you this inherent patience with other people’s personalities. Going abroad makes you adaptable.”
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Hilla Haidari ’16: “I’m much more self-sufficient”

Hilla HaidariThe history, language, and culture of one particular country have always fascinated Hilla Haidari ’16. When she learned during her sophomore year that Hollins had renewed its affiliation with an organization that specializes in traveling to and studying in Cuba, the international studies and economics double major “signed up as soon as I could.”

Haidari enrolled in Spanish classes in anticipation of going to Cuba for spring term of her junior year. But her advisor “encouraged me to go the extra mile and expand my ambitions. She suggested that I do London during fall term. There would be no language barriers and I could take courses that applied to either of my majors.”

Haidari stayed with a host family in London and found it gave her “a firsthand, more organic representation of what it’s like to live there.” She says they provided a sense of community but also respected her independence.

IconsBecause she is Afghan American, Haidari arrived in Cuba in early February 2015 with a different perspective from that of most U.S. students. “Coming from a place that theoretically is also in conflict with the United States, I think I was [more open] to my Cuban experience. Cuban people understand the pernicious relationship the U.S. government has had with the country, but they don’t see the American government and people as one and the same. They’re very welcoming. Having experience with Afghanistan, I understand being critical of American foreign policy, but that’s not a reflection on American people.”

The inability of Haidari’s Cuban host family to speak English became an opportunity rather than an obstacle. “It greatly improved my Spanish. I learned colloquialisms and the ins and outs of the language that I wouldn’t have received from a textbook. I have a greater appreciation for the language. It’s broadened my horizons.”

Following her year abroad, Haidari takes few things for granted. “It reminds you to be thankful for everything you have. That’s not just in the obvious sense of having amenities that Cubans lack. You understand how fortunate you are to be an English speaker. Even in Europe, everyone’s trying to learn English” because of the strong U.S. economic presence. “To have such a good command of [English]—that’s privilege.”
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Associate Professor of History Rachel Nuñez: “There’s a new excitement about returning to the classroom”

Rachel NunezWhen preparing for her first sabbatical, Rachel Nuñez mapped out “a sustained research agenda” and decided a two-pronged approach would be the best use of her time. “It’s the standard in my field that you take your dissertation and turn it into your first book, and that’s what I’m trying to do. At the same time I’m starting something new, and both projects are continuing alongside one another. It’s really useful not to get stuck inside one project where you get tired and frustrated. It’s nice to have something else you can do for a bit to keep things fresh.”

Nuñez’s book project focuses on the ways three prominent 19th-century French feminists thought about imperialism when France was involved in its “civilizing mission” to bring the benefits of European civilization to Africa and Asia. Her second project grew out of that research. “I found that the women I was researching were also offering some bizarre opinions about the issue of slavery, condemning it on one hand but on the other stating that slaves would never be able to emancipate themselves. I could see this leading to something interesting and complicated, so I knew the research would be productive.”

IconsTwo of the three feminists are well known, but Nuñez says she is offering a different interpretation of their work. For the third, “Nobody has really written on this woman. There isn’t anything out there about her. I’m basically introducing her to French historians.”

Nuñez gave birth to her second child during her sabbatical. Because of travel restrictions during her pregnancy, she was unable to go to France to do research. Fortunately, “The Internet has just exploded. I’ve done a lot of work through the Bibliothèque Nationale, which is the equivalent to our Library of Congress and has digitized a lot of material. Digitization has really changed the research process.”

When Nuñez returned to teaching last fall, she felt a sense of renewal. “I was excited to be in the classroom before, but now there’s a new excitement about returning when you’ve been away from it for a while.”

Nuñez’s experience in the classroom is also informing how she continues her work on her book project. “The subject I’m writing about may be the same as what my dissertation covered, but the way I’m blending together the materials, the people, the sources is completely different. I’ve rethought the ‘big picture’ framework, the story I’m trying to tell. I want to go from speaking to a very specialized audience, as I did with my dissertation, to writing a book that is accessible to an informed but more popular audience. Being a teacher plays a big role in that process.”
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Associate Professor of Communication Studies Jill Weber: “This is Weber 2.0”

Jill WeberOne of Jill Weber’s passions is giving back to society, and during her sabbatical she discovered her volunteer spirit could inform her work as both a teacher and a researcher.

Weber was on leave during Short Term and spring term 2015 and spent eight months working at Geisinger Medical Center in Danville, Pennsylvania. “I volunteered as a courier and I used that opportunity to talk with physicians, clinicians, patients, and visitors. I learned so much about organizational structure. It was really an internship for me.” One of the highlights was working closely with a whistleblower who faced disciplinary action despite exposing a violation of workplace policy. “She was contesting this with her human resources department, and I mentored her on how to respond to the situation. The employee, who originally faced suspension, wound up getting a promotion. The benefit for my students now is that I’m not speaking in the abstract, I’m giving them concrete examples of rhetoric in action.”

Weber’s original plan for her sabbatical research was to prepare a book-length manuscript about the rhetoric of family values in the making of national policy, which drew upon previous work on the subject in her Ph.D. dissertation. But she realized right away that her “sabbatical was really an opportunity to think about what my academic life is going to be like now, what I value as a scholar. What do I want to do in the classroom? What do I want my research to look like?

Icons“For me, the most liberating and exciting part of sabbatical was actually scrapping the idea I came in with for revising my dissertation and coming up with an entirely new approach that’s smarter, more interesting, and in my voice. I’m going to write a book I actually want to write. I can use it in my classes and show students how they can use scholarly research and apply it in their daily lives.”

Weber also took the advice of senior colleagues to set aside time “to relax and to wonder and to look out the window and go on walks, and to appreciate creative thinking as well as critical thinking. Having that down time and those ‘brain breaks’ is important. Now, I’m encouraging my students to do the same. I tell them, ‘If you’re freaking out about something, put it down, send me an email, and I will give you permission to take a break.’”

Weber’s interaction with her fellow volunteers at Geisinger gave her insight into her writing and teaching. “I had a great dialogue with them about LGBTQ and political issues. I learned so much from them that not only will help make my book accessible to a wider audience, it has also helped me better understand students with different perspectives from mine. I wouldn’t have made that kind of connection in an insular environment.”

Her students have appreciated this evolution into what she calls “Weber 2.0.” “I see my greatest contribution to them as not just instructing them in public speaking and writing, but teaching them confidence, that their voice has worth and value, and to believe in that voice.

“Sabbatical allowed me to appreciate the wholeness of me as a scholar and as a person, which in turn has resulted in me appreciating more the wholeness of my students.”

Jeff Hodges is director of public relations.

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