When Shelby Pykare graduates this month with a bachelor’s degree in anthropology, she knows exactly where she is going: first, a year-long, paid internship in her chosen field at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, and then the University of Hawaii, where she has been admitted to the graduate program in Pacific island studies. Hard work, the advice and support of several mentors, and a bit of serendipity have combined to set Pykare’s feet on the path to professional success.
“I’d always enjoyed reading about other cultures, but never knew it was something you could study,” she says. As a first-year student, she was paired with a peer mentor who happened to be a senior anthropology major. “He strongly recommended that I take Introduction to Anthropology with Professor David McConnell. I did and I loved it.”
She loved it so much that she decided to major in anthropology, and McConnell became her major adviser.
Pykare spent the fall semester of her junior year in Samoa, in a program run by the University of the South Pacific. There she was introduced to the writings of anthropologist Epeli Hau’ofa, who believed the cultures of the South Pacific, or Oceania, all shared certain characteristics that amounted to a common, pan-Oceanic identity, and that it was only colonization that had artificially divided the islands up into separate identities. Pykare wrote a research paper on Hau’ofa’s work, made a presentation at the university, and realized she had found an idea she wished to explore in more depth.
Back in Wooster, she applied for a grant from the college’s Copeland Fund to allow her to return to the South Pacific the following summer to conduct more research. Though McConnell, her major adviser, was on sabbatical and away from campus that year, he reviewed emailed drafts and helped her revise and edit the grant proposal, which was approved.
Meanwhile, the career services office was helping Pykare polish her resume and identify summer internship opportunities, including one in the Pacific ethnology area at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
Pykare says that when museum officials interviewed her, “they were really excited about the work I did in Samoa, and wanted to see a writing sample, so I sent them the 30-page paper I’d done on pan-Oceanic identity.”
She landed the internship, but her elation was quickly tempered by the realization that New York is an awfully expensive place for a “poor college student” to spend a summer. She worried that she wouldn’t be able to make the finances work.
Fortunately, Pykare shared her worry with another of her faculty mentors. Raymond Gunn, assistant professor of sociology, knew that the college was planning to launch a program called APEX Fellowships made for just such a situation, and thought this would make a perfect pilot. President Grant Cornwell agreed, and before she knew it, Pykare had the funding she needed to take the internship in New York.
She spent two months last summer helping to research and catalogue items from the museum’s enormous collections, assisting visiting researchers, and designing a new tour route for the Pacific hall. She even took a turn caring for the begonia that has been in continuous residence in the museum’s offices since Margaret Mead brought it there as a young curator in the 1920s. “I’m terrible with plants,” Pykare says. “I thought I would kill it.”
In August, she returned to the South Pacific for two weeks of interviews, observation, and research on the role of visual and performing arts in constructing a pan-Oceanic identity. That research formed the basis for her senior Independent Study, the year-long, mentored research project that is the culmination of every Wooster student’s academic journey. And fittingly, her faculty adviser for the project was Professor David McConnell.
Since turning in her project the Friday before spring break (and claiming I.S. button #73), Pykare has accepted the American Museum of Natural History’s offer of a year-long internship, which will begin this summer, and the University of Hawaii’s offer of admission to their master’s program in Pacific Island studies.
“I would love, one day, to be a Pacific hall curator in a museum,” she says.
Thanks to the course she has charted at Wooster, she appears to be well on her way.
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