Refining the Focus

Her family’s ties to Africa shaped English literature Ph.D. candidate Megan Cole Paustian’s choice of dissertation topic. The support she found at Rutgers helped her craft a proposal that earned her a Charlotte W. Newcombe Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship to support the research and writing of her dissertation.

Below she tells her Rutgers story.

The Right Fit

I grew up outside of Chicago and went to the University of Wisconsin-Madison as an undergraduate. I majored in English and did a certificate (basically a minor) in African studies. I finished up in 2007.

I was attracted to the Ph.D. program at Rutgers primarily for the professors and the supportive environment. When I visited Rutgers, it just felt like the right fit. The conversations with professors and other visiting students got me excited about grad school.

When I entered the program I had no idea what my dissertation research would look like beyond the fact that it would be in African literature. Figuring that out has definitely been part of the process.

The Pull of Angola

My dad grew up in Angola, so in our family, dad-stories were always about Africa. Angola was the most significant place in our family history, so I was naturally drawn to it.

War in Angola (both the war for independence against Portugal and the civil war that followed until 2002) prevented my dad from going back and from taking me and my siblings there for many years. However, before the end of the war, we started visiting camps of Angolan refugees in Namibia and Zambia.

Now I travel frequently to Angola to visit friends and to work with RISE International, a nonprofit organization my parents started in partnership with a number of Angolans. The organization partners with rural communities to build primary schools in deeply under-resourced areas of the country.

In my work there, I've participated in teacher-training workshops and led seminars on AIDS prevention and sessions on critical thinking.

Earning the Newcombe

I heard about the Newcombe fellowship from one of the professors on my dissertation committee, Rebecca Walkowitz. The program supports research related to religion and ethics, and she thought my project would be a good fit.

The application process involves pitching your work to an interdisciplinary group of readers. You submit a description of your dissertation, a statement of its relevance to the study of religion and ethics, and letters of recommendation.

A dissertation in its middle stages is so shape-shifting and messy you can easily get lost in the details—or at least I did!—so applying for a fellowship is actually a helpful process for writing the dissertation itself. It forces you to articulate in a limited number of words the major argument and significance of your project.

My dissertation, “Narratives of African Improvement: Missions, Humanitarianism, and the Novel,” looks at the resources literature provides for debates about humanitarian intervention and the relationship between Africa and the West.

I was thrilled and honored to hear that my fellowship application was selected. The feeling that keeps coming back to me, though, is one of deep gratitude to the professors on my dissertation committee: Rebecca Walkowitz, John McClure, and Stéphane Robolin. I feel so fortunate to have this wonderful team of supporters, who I have depended on throughout grad school.

Easing a Long Commute

A significant obstacle that I've had in completing graduate school is self-created. I live in Evanston, just outside of Chicago, because my husband is a high-school social worker in the area. That means my life has been split between New Jersey and Illinois for several years, commuting when necessary and working long-distance. It has been challenging in a number of ways, but the privilege of continuing my education has been worth it.

Now that I'm done with my coursework and I have a fellowship, I'm able to work from home, which has made things much easier!

Over the next year, I will be finishing my dissertation and applying for jobs and postdoctoral fellowships. It’s hard to believe the end is getting so close! I’m hoping to find a job as an assistant professor in a university English department, teaching 20th-century world literature and African literature in particular.

I’d love to teach courses that examine the intersections between global poverty and development, human rights, and literature.