Never Finished Learning
We sat down recently to talk with spring 2014 Honors College graduate Jacqueline DeRobertis to discuss her four years at LSU-- and her new life in New York, where she's pursuing a master's degree in English literature at Syracuse University. Jackie wrote many of the articles featured on the Honors College website over the last three years, so we know she's got a way with words...
Tell me a little bit about yourself—where you’re from, how you ended up at LSU…
I was born and raised in Baton Rouge. My mom went to LSU, people who I went to high school with went to LSU. I always knew LSU was a good school. It wasn’t really one of those things where I had to ask around about it. I just kind of knew that the Honors program here was very prestigious, and I decided that was for me. I took all honors and AP classes through high school, and there was a level of academic rigor that came with that kind of coursework that I wanted to continue in my college career. I knew the Honors College could offer me that. Plus, they gave me a great scholarship!
So when you got to LSU, did you mostly stick with your high school friends, or did you make new friends pretty quickly, or both?
It was a little different for me with the Honors College bonding experience. I started off staying friends with certain people I knew from high school. I lived at home all four years, so I was that Honors College student who did not live in Laville! And everyone is so close-knit in that dorm life, particularly because when people are living away from home for the first time they bond together so quickly. And I felt like while the Honors College was very welcoming and very open and encouraging in my first year, it’s the lobby environment, the dining hall environment, everyone goes and eats breakfast together, that you don’t really get as a commuter. It wasn’t the worst thing, but I felt like I had to find ways to get more involved and meet more people. Like taking three Departmental Honors classes in my first semester!
You took three in your first semester?
I thought that would be a good way to just throw myself into it. I took an Honors Theater course, an Honors Oceanography course, and an Honors Philosophy course. Coming from a high school where every single class I took was Honors or AP, I was thinking, “Oh, I’m only taking five classes this semester, at least three of them should be Honors”—but that’s not the way it works here, exactly. The workload’s very different. Not that it’s necessarily harder, it’s more group-oriented work, it’s more independent study. But I did well, and I made new friends. And once I started taking HNRS courses, once I got more into my major and more into these classes that were really interesting to me, I started to make more friends that I hadn’t known before—lots of out-of-state friends. I kind of gravitated towards Honors College people, without knowing they were Honors College people. It was a magnetic effect; we all are hard workers and we all have ambition, so it just kind of becomes what happens.
Was there anything that surprised you about the Honors College when you got here? Anything you weren’t expecting?
Maybe the attention to service, but that’s not really surprising. I was just struck by how important community service was. The first thing that I did, the first experience that I had at LSU, where I met my first friend—I’m in her wedding now—was Community Bound. We went to Buchanan Elementary and cleaned and painted. That was definitely something that helped me to get involved as a commuter. We read Zeitoun that year [for the Honors College Shared Read Program] and we were talking about New Orleans, poverty, immigration, and then immediately there was Community Bound and hearing Dave Eggers come to talk to us about all these things. It just struck me pretty immediately that—this is what it’s like to be eighteen and to become an adult and really care about these social issues, not only to be informed about them but to actually go out into your community and help people work through them. It was something that I really admired about the college that I wasn’t expecting.
What else did you do to get involved on campus?
Well, primarily I focused on doing work with the literary journals on campus. I was the secretary of Fusion for the past two years, and I’ve been involved with the Delta Literary Journal since my sophomore year. This past year I was co-editor in chief. It was a serious leadership position—we had to plan a lot of events, we had to raise quite a bit of money to publish the journal, and we had to promote ourselves in a mature way. Which can be very difficult when you’re an undergraduate literary journal that, even though it has quite a history, is still just trying to make itself known.
Later on you studied abroad, correct?
I did. I studied abroad in Norwich, England in the spring semester of my junior year. I went to the University of East Anglia, where I look literature courses. I picked that location because they had a very impressive English department. And it was close enough to London and Cambridge that I could take the train to visit. I geeked out in Cambridge, because that’s where Milton went to school, and I love Paradise Lost. I got to go to Ireland, to Dublin, to Edinburgh and also Geneva in Switzerland.
But yeah, Norwich was great. The classes were very challenging. I took a Ulysses course, and that might have been okay on its own, but I was taking it alongside a Henry James course, and another class where I was reading a lot of Virginia Woolf and Edith Wharton and Catherine Mansfield. Which all together just made for a lot reading. But it’s structured very differently there, where you only have one or two papers due and that’s your entire grade for the semester. It was that sort of studying that encouraged me to apply to graduate school. I hadn’t really thought about it up until that point, but then I realized that I was excelling at what was almost graduate-level course work. So I spoke to one of my tutors and she was very encouraging and helped me start doing preliminary research.
When you got back to LSU, what made you decide to pursue a creative Honors Thesis, rather than a research-based thesis on literature?
One of the things that originally drew me to the Honors College was the idea of doing an Honors Thesis. And one of the first things I saw when I got here was that you could do a creative thesis. I had no idea that was something you could do in college. I’ve always enjoyed writing creatively, and I felt like I needed some more experience. So I took some creative writing classes along with my literature classes and philosophy classes and discovered that I really liked the workshop setting.
Then, on my own one summer, I read The Sun Also Rises, and I was—I don’t know, just immediately struck by the simplicity and elegance of Hemingway’s writing. I felt like if I could write like that and strike someone in such a way with so few words, that would be a skill to learn. So for my thesis I decided that I would like to study minimalism in detail, study the greats like Hemingway and Raymond Carver and Amy Hempel and really try to understand how to write in that way. It was like a puzzle, and it was something that I worked very hard to accomplish. So my Honors Thesis ended up being a collection of ten short stories that look at relationships on a minimalist level. It’s titled We Were Just Like Them. Randolph Thomas was my thesis advisor and he was fantastic. He really treated me almost like a peer. He gave my work attention, and didn’t hold back with the criticism, and helped me to learn every single time I visited him. He’s definitely my mentor.
Do you plan to keep writing creatively now that you’ve graduated from LSU?
Yes, I hope to. I’m not getting my MFA—I’m getting my MA in Literature. I feel like I have a lot more to learn and I have more experiences that I need to draw from before I start throwing myself further into writing creatively.
I feel like I’m not done learning. I feel like I’ve barely broken ground with the kind of research that I’m interested in. And I feel like in grad school I’ll be able to do that. Syracuse has a fantastic, fantastic program for English, and I was lucky enough to get in and get funding. I’m teaching freshman composition and writing courses, and it’s an adventure! What I hope to get out of it is—I hope to determine my course of action, whether I want to continue on and get my doctorate, or be a journalist, or work for a publishing company. To write as much as I can and research as much as I can and get the most out of living in a completely different city. And decide where all of that will lead me.