Humanities At Work

Humanities At Work

Matthew Waldemar ’20 near the Marianne Boesky Gallery in Chelsea, New York City

Matthew Waldemar ’20 near the Marianne Boesky Gallery in Chelsea, New York City

Alumni with humanities degrees follow their paths to build careers they love

“Museum-quality, great art can be accessible anywhere, to anyone. People can enjoy these great things in their own backyard.”

— Matthew Waldemar ’20

In today’s rapidly evolving world and job market, a degree in the humanities still offers graduates the keys to wherever they’d like to go. In fact, according to annual data on median salaries compiled by The Wall Street Journal, humanities majors surge ahead midcareer in comparison to many professional school graduates. According to testing agencies, humanities graduates outpace other academic subgroups in GMAT, LSAT, and GRE exam results.

At Fairfield, the humanities are not a department, but rather, a combination of studies around human cultures, expression, and thought — specifically, the study of history, philosophy, religious studies, languages, and visual and performing arts.

“The intellectual rigor and creativity of the humanities have long prepared students to be leaders in a variety of careers,” said Nels Pearson, PhD, professor of English and director of the Humanities Institute at Fairfield. The institute was created by a National Endowment for the Humanities Challenge Grant in 1983, to support teacher-scholars in humanistic inquiry.

“There is a groundswell of new evidence and arguments out there about the prevailing myth that the humanities don’t lead to practical careers or successful professional lives,” Dr. Pearson continued. “There’s a mountain of evidence that shows the opposite is the case.”

Here is a look at some recent Fairfield humanities alumni and the routes they have taken towards achieving success in their careers and lives.

Matthew Waldemar ’20

Major: Art History
Occupation: Gallery Assistant at Marianne Boesky Gallery
Waldemar standing near the entrance of The High Line, an elevated park and greenway featuring public art in Manhattan.

Waldemar standing near the entrance of The High Line, an elevated park and greenway featuring public art in Manhattan.

Matthew Waldemar ’20 grew up in a home filled with vibrant Haitian arts and crafts, and tagged along with his mother as she taught art workshops and shared her passion with others. So, he felt he wanted to develop his interest in art with a course of study at college.

“I want to give people the same reaction that I had when I first saw this,” Waldemar said, lifting a Haitian Steel Drum sculpture — called Fe Dékoupé — of birds in flight on an ornate tree into the frame, during a Zoom interview with Fairfield University Magazine.

Raised in Fairfield County, Waldemar found his way to the University by chance and became a member of the Academic Immersion Program for first-generation students.

Once he matriculated full-time, Waldemar overcame some initial challenges with the support of the Office of Student Diversity and Multicultural Affairs, and decided to stick it out. He then studied abroad in Italy where he took a roster of art history courses and something just clicked.

“That’s how I became an art history major,” Waldemar said, smiling. Once back on campus, he volunteered at the Fairfield University Art Museum, held internships at the Aldrich Museum in Ridgefield, Conn., and at local galleries, and connected with instructors in the Department of Visual and Performing Arts.

Waldemar joined the Humanities Seminar, which is a research and mentorship program for students under the aegis of the Humanities Institute. His seminar project was to curate an art exhibition in the spring of 2020. Over the course of a year, Waldemar built a lineup of artists’ work from across the U.S. to appear in his show on campus, but due to the pandemic, he had to shift modalities from an in-person gallery to an online experience. Waldemar’s exhibit, Bawdy Project: A Study of Masculinity through the Canon of Art, was the University’s first student-curated contemporary art exhibition.

“I wanted to highlight this reimagination of the ‘male gaze,’” said Waldemar, who identifies as queer. “I wanted to show that contemporary artists, of varied disciplines, had already been questioning notions of masculinity.”

“I’m really happy that I did it,” he went on, “because it gave me a sense of confidence.”

Currently, Waldemar has earned a spot as a gallery assistant at the Marianne Boesky Gallery (MBG) in New York City, which represents more than 30 esteemed artists of different generations and backgrounds from around the globe. The MBG, founded in 1996, has a commitment to — and focus on — equality, diversity, and inclusion goals, as well as environmental objectives.

“What attracted me most to my current position was the gallery’s programming,” Waldemar said. “The owner wanted to build in some initiatives, from bias training to better hiring practices, to diversify the staff but also
the talents brought to the gallery.”

A founding member of the Alumni of Color Network at Fairfield University, Waldemar has his sights set on becoming a public curator with an aim to “activate public spaces and bring art outside from institutions.”

“Museum-quality, great art can be accessible anywhere, to anyone,” Waldemar said. “People can enjoy these great things in their own backyard.”

Ashley Toombs ’07

Major: Spanish and International Studies
Occupation: Director of External Affairs, BRAC USA
Ashley Toombs ’07 at the BRAC USA headquarters in lower Manhattan.

Ashley Toombs ’07 at the BRAC USA headquarters in lower Manhattan.

A typical day for Ashley Toombs ’07, BRAC USA’s director of external affairs, starts with early morning calls to connect with colleagues in Europe, Africa, and Asia.

BRAC — originally the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee — is an international nonprofit that provides people living in poverty with tools and support to create better lives for

For the past 50 years, BRAC has served 100 million people in 11 countries, with a particular focus on women and girls. They’ve achieved this by disbursing microloans to more than 7 million people, empowering youth through skill building programs, providing healthcare, educating children, and training farmers.

Toombs travels often, both domestically and internationally, to represent BRAC at events and conferences, and to manage relationships with other global and strategic foundations and philanthropists.

“I feel so fortunate to get to travel for my work,” she said over Zoom. “I get to spend time with fascinating people from different places who may look different than me, but at the end of the day, we’re all human. To feel that connection with people from all over the world — to have that chance — is such a gift.”

 Toombs, a Spanish and international studies major at Fairfield, talks with a BRAC colleague

Toombs, a Spanish and international studies major at Fairfield, talks with a BRAC colleague.

When she spoke with Fairfield University Magazine, Toombs had recently returned from a trip to Bangladesh where she was visiting the sites of climate change programs in the Southern coast of the country, one of the most climate change-affected places on the planet. While there, Toombs visited BRAC projects she works with that provide access to clean water, through reverse osmosis water treatment plants or rainwater harvesting at the household level, for crop irrigation and human and livestock consumption.

“What I love about what I do is that I find it deeply intellectually challenging,” Toombs said about her broad role at BRAC, where she’s worked since 2015. “My brain is constantly being taxed, whether I’m manipulating a spread sheet, or I’m working with a team in another country who is thinking hard about a systemic challenge that historically the world has said, ‘we can’t fix this.’”

Toombs, who now lives just outside New York City with her husband and their two small children, majored in Spanish and international studies at Fairfield and minored in Latin American and Caribbean studies. She was a recipient of the Loyola Medal and the Martin Luther King Jr. Student Diversity Award.

“Studying the humanities makes you question everything,” said Toombs, who spent four and a half years with the Peace Corps in South America and then earned her master’s degree in environmental science and policy from Columbia University. “You can feel very small in the world, but in a way, that’s really beautiful.

Jason Mancini ’94, PHD

Major: History
Occupation: Executive Director, Connecticut Humanities; Co-Founder, Akomawt Educational Initiative
Dr. Mancini researches Native American mariners and is a longtime partner of the Seaport Museum.

Dr. Mancini researches Native American mariners and is a longtime partner of the Seaport Museum.

Wind gusts rattled the rigging aboard the Charles W. Morgan, an American whaling ship built in 1841, moored in Mystic, Conn. Jason Mancini ’94 was one of the voyagers who spent some time on the Morgan during its 38th voyage in 2014 from Provincetown to Boston; the ship is now largely a historic exhibition vessel. A longtime partner of the Seaport Museum, Dr. Mancini’s research into the lives and history of Native American mariners brought him to the Morgan restoration project, where he worked with other scholars and museum professionals.

Since 2018, he’s also been the executive director of Connecticut Humanities, an independent, non-profit affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, which aims to connect people and ideas through grants, partnerships, and sponsorship of collaborative programs throughout the state.

Dr. Mancini manages a $23M annual budget. This past year, his office awarded operating support grants to 632 arts and humanities organizations across Connecticut, in partnership with the CT Office of the Arts.

“It’s really about teaching people how to tell better stories,” Dr. Mancini said about what his role at the helm ultimately boils down to, as he walked with Fairfield University Magazine
through the Seaport campus.

“Teaching people how to tell a better story about Native People, with Native People,” he continued, “and helping different organizations to manage their collections, to make them more accessible.”

To that end, Dr. Mancini co-founded Akomawt Educational Initiative, a non-profit group dedicated to furthering knowledge of Native America.

Dr. Mancini grew up in Ledyard, Conn., and spent his boyhood summers cleaning and categorizing artifacts in the lab of his uncle — tribal archaeologist, Kevin McBride, PhD — at the University of Connecticut (UConn). When he was 14, he did his first field season excavating the site where Foxwoods Casino now stands on the Mashantucket Pequot Reservation, part of the Mashantucket Pequot Ethnohistory Project to document 13,000 years of cultural continuity on the reservation.

The 1994 Fairfield alumnus holds a doctorate as well as a master’s degree in anthropology from UConn and is currently the Mellon Visiting Fellow in Slavery and Justice at Brown University. Father of two college-aged daughters, Dr. Mancini said he’s had long talks with them about what and where to study. But it all comes down to following one’s passions and interests and going after inspiration.

“The humanities can create paths to almost anything,” he noted. “The critical thinking skills, the adaptability, the curiosity, the ability to see and gauge nuance in life is rooted in humanities. You can take that anywhere.” 

Tags:  College of Arts & Sciences

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