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Cheryl Berriman, TGS's Inaugural Higher Education Leadership Intern

Modified: November 20, 2014

When Cheryl Berriman talks about any aspect of her Northwestern experience – the undergraduate studies that paved the way for a PhD, the graduate students and faculty who shaped her studies, her extracurricular work with the University’s Residential Colleges – the theme that keeps coming up is “mentors.”

After reading Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment as an undergraduate, Cheryl, who is a Slavic Languages PhD student and the inaugural Professional Development intern at The Graduate School, became a philosophy major. Russian literature was initially a side interest that ultimately overtook philosophy, at least in part because of one particularly influential professor.

“I had this class my junior year where the professor was talking about Pasternak, who wrote Doctor Zhivago, and he said that [Pasternak] started out as a philosopher and became a poet because ‘you can discuss the same things, but in poetry they’re beautiful,’” recalled Cheryl. At that point, she decided to take a second year of Russian language, and was encouraged by a professor to apply for PhD programs in Slavic Studies.

After taking a year off to work at a Cold War museum, Cheryl began her PhD in Northwestern’s Slavic Studies department. She credits Professor Clare Cavanagh, her advisor and the teacher of a proseminar Cheryl took her first quarter at Northwestern, for helping her through the transition from undergraduate to grad school, and from philosophy to Slavic Studies.

“My first class at Northwestern, I was trained in philosophy, which is quite different from how you write a literature paper,” says Cheryl, “and she just tore my first paper apart.” Cheryl describes Cavanagh as “both really honest and really supportive,” saying, “she really encouraged me to channel the things I was passionate about.”

One of the things Cheryl was passionate about was fashion, which she shared with Cavanagh. “We really bonded over our interest in clothes and shoes,” said Cheryl; that shared interest ultimately determined the direction of Cheryl’s research, which focuses on the shift in the way Russian writers talk about fashion after the Bolshevik Revolution and merges fashion theory and cultural history with Russian literature.

“[People] go from trying to stand out in [their] fur coats and pearls […] to all of a sudden it’s about unity, and you don’t want to stand out” describes Cheryl. “Clothes that were iconic and trendy are now dangerous.”

The importance of mentors like Cavanagh in Cheryl’s life solidified her desire to go into academia after graduation, while simultaneously helping her understand the full breadth of what being a university professor entails.

“[Professors] have so many responsibilities that aren’t just teaching and their own research,” she says. “I really love the teaching component, and of course the research is good fun, but I’ve found that I really love the mentoring side.” Cheryl’s love of mentoring manifested in her role as Assistant Master at one of Northwestern’s residential colleges, which she describes as “the most rewarding thing I’ve done at Northwestern.”

Cheryl’s focus on the importance of mentors extends beyond her experiences at Northwestern. She recently ran the Chicago marathon for a charity, Girls on the Run, that provides adolescent girls with training to run a 5K while also teaching girls about body positivity and how to stand up against bullying. Cheryl has also volunteered with the charity as a running buddy.

The responsibilities of working as an Assistant Master were also a factor in Cheryl’s decision to apply for The Graduate School’s Professional Development internship. While attending meetings as Assistant Master, she noticed that “so often [at Northwestern] you have 15 groups trying to reinvent the wheel. Everyone has these great intentions and wants similar things, but the decentralization can make it difficult.”

As TGS’s Higher Education Leadership Intern, Cheryl wants to help her fellow graduate students find out about professional development opportunities. Her own experience with Northwestern’s programming was driven by two older graduate students who mentored her when she was a new student, and she knows that, for people who don’t have the kind of student mentors she did, it can be hard to find out about professional development opportunities, which Cheryl believes are vital to success during and after graduate school.

“You can’t be successful if all you can do is write well,” says Cheryl. “There are so many more skills you have to develop.”

Cheryl’s love of teaching and belief in the importance of mentoring came together in a story about a former student of hers. As a TA for a first-year Russian language class, she tried to liven up grammar lessons with funny stories and anecdotes, a strategy that turned out to be more influential than she imagined.

“One day in class, I told this story […] called the Pretender Dmitri,” the story of a Polish monk who pretended to be the heir to the Russian Tsar, and who was loaded into a cannon by the Russians and fired back toward Poland for his troubles. A couple years later, when applying for a position as Assistant Master, Cheryl asked one of the students from that class to write her a letter of support.

“She wrote about how much she enjoyed my class, and how I would take these kind of impersonal grammar lessons and add these little stories,” said Cheryl. That student was on the Northwestern speech team, and ultimately used the story of the Pretender Dmitri in a national speech competition. She won.

“It taught me that being good in your field is one thing,” said Cheryl, “but that teaching is ultimately about people and relationships.”

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