When asked at what moment she knew she wanted to major in English, Hellen Wainaina (C’18) snarkily retorted that she knew the moment she was born—and, laughing at the absurdity of her own humor, added: “I had a book in my hand when I came out of the womb!”
Despite her early love for English, evidently hoarding books in her crib during her early childhood, Wainaina’s decision to pursue English is a relatively recent one; until her senior year of high school, she had hoped to pursue medicine.
And English, it turns out, is not her only passion. This spring, Wainaina will graduate with a double major in both English and Music with a minor in Spanish. Graduating a year early, Wainaina is a Writing Center tutor, Proctor, and all-around impressive student who hopes to add more accolades to her already impressive list: she wants to graduate as a distinguished English student, possibly with honors.
“You can be one without the other,” Wainaina started, explaining the difference between graduating as a distinguished student versus with honors. “You can pass your comp and have a great honors thesis and be honors, or you can just be distinguished in your comp. I’m doing an honors thesis, but I don’t know if I’ll get honors, and then if I do very well on the comp I could get distinguished.”
The process of writing an honors thesis is quite the undertaking, though such is to be expected from a field of study so renowned at Sewanee.
“Most people tend to pick a paper that they wrote previously that engaged ideas or themes or questions that were particularly interesting to them, and then they take the paper and say, ‘Okay, I want to take this idea, theme, question, whatever’ and explore it further, and write an honors thesis on it,” Wainaina said.
For Wainaina, pragmatism was the main impetus for writing an honors thesis; she wants to be able to specialize her otherwise broad English major and also to produce a piece of writing that could be submitted for graduate school applications years from now.
“So it’s like two birds with one stone. The Honors is me saying that I’m really interested in Post-Colonial literature…here is proof of that interest and that I have academically explored this topic. And then, two, I’ll have a writing sample for when I’m thinking to apply to grad school,” she explained.
Wainaina only had a few criticisms about the English department, including a lack of clout around modern authors, and a perceived lack of integration in some classes curriculums. Like, she pointed out, the lack of African American and female voices in classes where they would be relevant. Otherwise, Wainaina simply wishes there were more cross-disciplinary classes—ones designed, for example, for both international and global studies students and English students.
Wainaina emphasized that despite her criticisms, the English department is a strong one, deserving of its reputation at Sewanee.
“You get that joke of, ‘What am I going to do with this degree?” she said with a laugh, “but if you’re interested in journalism, there are people on staff who have contacts who can help you break into that field, or if you are interested in teaching, or review, or whatever.”
Though she was fairly certain about pursuing English by the time she came to Sewanee, and was already an advanced Spanish student, Wainaina had no idea that she would come to major in music as well.
After taking a music class with Dr. Stephen Miller, the department chair, Wainaina began to consider double majoring in music, not just English. He pulled her aside one day and encouraged her to consider majoring in music.
Reflecting on the moment, Wainaina shared that “I was really touched and moved because I always thought that you had to be a prodigy to major in music, but that’s not true!” With a chuckle, referencing her skill level as a violinist, she emphasized that she was not a musical prodigy.
“There are three music tracks. You can do performance, composition, or history and culture. They all have the basic requirements. Like, you have to take Music 101, Music Theory, and the Music History classes and then you can focus on whatever you want to do. And so because I’m a music history and culture track, I’ve taken a lot of classes that study a specific era of music history, and we listen to that music, talk about that music, and its importance in present-day culture or its context historically.”
For Wainaina, music and English are disciplines that are constantly in conversation with one another.
“For my music track, we’re doing a lot of history, and so a lot of the historical information that you’re getting in music classes translates to my English classes, especially because it’s mostly focused on the West, which is most of our English curriculum—understandably so—but they do cross-pollinate, for sure,” she said.
Wainaina continued, “There are also a lot of similarities in terms of genre, like music history genres. Like Romanticism, well, there’s also around the same time that’s happening it’s also happening in the literature that you have Romanticism. So these things don’t happen independently of one another.”
Wainaina also explained some music and Spanish crossover. “I’m a Spanish minor, so there are some classes with Dr. Cesár Leal that are more about Latin America, and so in terms of Spanish classes and music classes those cross too,” she said.
Noting some exchange between English and Spanish, she continued, “We read Don Quixote in Spanish 301, which was interesting because you learn about and talk about Don Quixote in your English classes.”
When explaining her love for the Spanish program at Sewanee, Wainaina concluded, “I think it’s the little things that count—but they’re the big things if you think about it.” Enumerating example “little things,” Wainaina began by explaining her love for the Spanish house, “The professors are great! I really love the Spanish department, I love going to the Spanish table, those things.”
Having reflected upon her experience at Sewanee thus far, Wainaina concluded, “I like Sewanee, overall. I like the community, I’ve loved getting to know professors and their families and I’ve loved going to Cowan and getting to know other families on the Mountain, which has been both fascinating and interesting.”