Dec. 1, 2015

By Caroline Cataldo

During her third year as an English doctoral student at Brandeis, Michaela Henry, PhD'16, remembers reviewing an assignment in the office of her dissertation adviser, Professor Ulka Anjaria. After considering her student’s latest piece, Anjaria turned to Henry and praised the maturity of her work.

“It was if we began to see each other differently,” Henry says, reflecting on this interaction.

Now a sixth-year doctoral student and the recipient of a prestigious Mellon Dissertation Year Fellowship, Henry looks back on her instructional time with Anjaria and other Brandeis faculty as the foundation of her time at the University.

“When Ulka returned (from leave), I realized how much time I had to think and explore other work slightly out of my area of study,” Henry says. “I was then able to come back to my home base with a kind of conviction and clarity I wouldn’t have otherwise had.”

These types of “study abroad” experiences, as Henry calls them, are the reason why she chose to enroll at the Brandeis Graduate School of Arts and Sciences after graduating from Emmanuel College and working in publishing. The small size of the Brandeis English department allowed her to focus on her interest area – contemporary South Asian fiction – and be inspired by work outside her field without losing sight of her ultimate focus.

“I knew as soon as I looked at Brandeis as a possibility that the department would be a good mix between the traditional rigor of textual analysis and an openness to theoretical expansiveness,” she says. “It was a place where people could work within a unique combination of academic study.”

According to Anjaria, the benefits of a close-knit academic community work both ways.

“Students like Michaela are one of the reasons why professors want to work in departments with graduate students,” Anjaria says. “There is a level of interaction, dialogue and discussion that makes our own work stronger as we mentor them through theirs.”

During her time at Brandeis, Henry has actively taken part in dissertation groups created by students across academic departments. The discussions have helped immeasurably as she works to complete her dissertation, “Narrative’s Nuclear Spring: The South Asian Novel After the Planting of the Nuclear Bomb.”

The groups are an informal way for the students to check in on each other’s progress by exchanging chapters, while also gauging each other’s stress levels – an important measure in any graduate program.

“We had a built-in avenue to flex our muscles and ask each other about how we were feeling about the process,” Henry says. “It’s not often you find doctoral students from different departments in a room together.”

Brandeis’ proximity to other universities has provided Henry with the opportunity to take classes in her area of study elsewhere, while forming relationships with a network of students and professors.

At a time when it is necessary to identify yourself academically, Henry says these relationships have helped her balance narrowing her dissertation with gaining a greater understanding of the greater context of her work.

“The postcolonialist (academic) community is a small one,” she says, “but at Brandeis I feel like I have access to the people who I need for emotional and academic support as I define myself in this field.”

As Henry works to complete her dissertation, she hopes to continue learning from the community that has supported her in the pursuit of her academic passions.