A degree of success : Congratulations, Ms. Holladay
On June 5, Janet Holladay, a long-time Island resident who works as a bookmaker at Tisbury Printer, closed an important chapter of her life. Commuting from the Island, Ms. Holladay earned her master's degree from Harvard University Extension School's Graduate Program, while working during the day, and actively participating at Polly Hill, Felix Neck, the Unitarian Universalist Church, and her favorite pastime, swing dancing. And it only took 20 years.
The university honored her with the Tortoise Award - given to the student who has taken the longest time to receive his or her graduate degree. Already holding an undergaduate degree from Smith College and a master's degree from Harvard's Divinity School (2004), she graduated this year, being named to the Dean's List, and receiving the Dean's Award for Outstanding Thesis, Masters in the Humanities. She plans to expand her thesis into a book, at the request of her academic advisors.
"It's such a shock," she says. "I never knew anything about my grade point average or anything like that."
Ms. Holladay, 55, despite being described by both herself and others as shy, becomes animated when describing the research through which she has earned her accolade. Her thesis, a theological reflection of the relationship between women, nature and theology in literature, began 20 years ago at Harvard night school.
The first two parts of her thesis were almost finished when her studies were interrupted. Ms. Holladay was diagnosed with bone marrow cancer. After receiving a full bone marrow transplant in 1999, she was able to enjoy a full recovery.
But it was while still in the hospital that Ms. Holladay developed her desire to study theology. She filled out an application from her hospital bed, and because - "My mother wouldn't have liked the idea at all" - had friends secretly send in her application to Harvard Divinity School. "Cancer taught me that life is short, so go with it," she says; adding, almost as a manifesto, "I love education, and life is short."
After receiving her master's degree from Harvard Divinity School (for which Ms. Holladay thanks Nelia Decker and Susan Phelps who made it possible by organizing an education fund to sponsor her studies), she decided to return to her original thesis, augmented by her newly attained expertise. "It was a blast," she explains.
"A blast," perhaps, but only for someone with Ms. Holladay's drive and desire to learn. She completed her research while at home on the Vineyard, regularly commuting to Cambridge to use the resources at Harvard's main campus. She admits, "Getting up for the 6 am boat starts to wear on you, but I did all of my work on the boat and the bus." She adds, "It was an adventure of discovery."
And she is reflective. "The academic world is transient," she says, "I loved it, and there are a lot of smart people up [at Harvard], but this is my home, and I love living here."
As for recommending setting academic goals: "I say go for it," she says, and laughs.
Peter Kirn is a graduate of Colby College, and a long-time seasonal resident living in Edgartown.