The Oxford-bound history major reflects and looks forward

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Kate Reed ’19
Courtesy Kate Reed
In this Commencement episode of PAWcast, we talk with valedictorian Kate Reed ’19, a history major and Rhodes Scholar from Arnold, Md. Reed talks about her experiences teaching English as a second language in Trenton, digging into archival research in Mexico City, and wandering into a Princeton Preview course that eventually helped to shape her course of study.

Taking time to let yourself wander — metaphorically or literally — can be “really powerful” at a place like Princeton, Reed says.


Brett Tomlinson: I’m Brett Tomlinson, and welcome to the June edition of the PAWcast, the Commencement edition. Our guest is Kate Reed, the valedictorian for this year’s graduating class, the Class of 2019. Kate is from Arnold, Md., she is a history concentrator with certificates in Spanish and Latin American studies. She has taught English as a second language for local adults through El Centro, a student volunteer group, and she’ll be pursuing a master’s in development studies at the University of Oxford in the fall as a Rhodes Scholar. And of course, she will be delivering the valedictory address at Commencement on June 4. Kate, thank you for joining me.

Kate Reed ’19: Thank you so much for having me.

BT: You are reaching the end of these four years at Princeton, but I suppose every student who gets here has a moment of decision as a prospective student. What was that moment for you? And what drew you to Princeton?

KR: So when I was applying to colleges, I was terrified of cities. I’d never lived in a city, I grew up in the suburbs, so that was a really big factor for me when I was applying to college. And I’ve since come around to cities, and actually really love Mexico City, where I’ve done a lot of my independent research. But Princeton seemed like a great fit, it was sort of small town vibes, very charming, beautiful architecture, and everyone I met was just an incredible person. So I think that, I applied early and then got in and decided to come right away. So I actually didn’t apply anywhere else. So that’s my Princeton decision.

BT: And how has Princeton compared to what you were expecting from your college experience?

KR: I almost think I didn’t know what to expect. And so, it’s just been an incredible number of opportunities and meeting the most incredible people, from faculty to facilities staff, to the people who run my department, to just the incredible students and grad students here. They’re all just fantastic people, and I’ve been so grateful to learn from them over the past four years.

BT: And as valedictorian, you’ve certainly distinguished yourself as a scholar. I’m curious to hear about your life away from the classroom. What have you kind of kept busy with when you’re not studying?

KR: So my biggest nonacademic commitment has been teaching ESL classes through El Centro, which is a Pace Center program. And I’ve been doing that for a little over three years at this point now. And that’s such a meaningful experience to me, not only to sort of be a part of a community other than the Princeton community — we’re based in Trenton — but also to sort of learn in different ways that are not academic, that are not based in the classroom, and to have such a wide variety of life experiences sitting around the table in a classroom together. We have people from all over, Latin America, mostly. And we come together for these classes, and for me, I’m technically the teacher, but I feel much more like a student in terms of both learning new Spanish and also learning from these people and their life stories.

BT: And you’re doing this work at a time when immigration is the most discussed, most debated topic in the country. What’s your sense of the mood among the immigrant community in and around Princeton?

KR: I think immediately following the 2016 election, we had a huge increase in the number of students who were coming to our classes out of fear, that — and sort of thinking that learning English would help them were they to, you know, God forbid, have to be involved in some kind of court proceedings, or immigration proceedings, or interact with law enforcement or ICE in any way. And so for us, it’s been, how do we help these people in ways that are consistent with what we know as students? And we’re not lawyers, and we’re not — we’re not able to provide that kind of support, but how can we integrate, here is information should you need help, should you need legal support, should you need healthcare, should you need an eye exam, [integrate that] into the classroom, and make it sort of a more holistic experience that can support students in multiple ways as they face a lot of sort of threats and precarities as undocumented people.

BT: And you mentioned that these are primarily adults, older than you. What’s it like, what’s that dynamic like to be the teacher in a classroom where you are the youngest in the classroom?

KR: I think it’s a lot of fun. We have a really good time. They’re always asking me when I’m going to get married and have kids, and I always have to tell them like, not for a long time, don’t worry. (laughter) But no, it’s been a fantastic experience, and I’m really sad to be leaving that. Our graduation is this coming Friday, so it’s going to be pretty sad. But also, glad to see them get together and celebrate their incredible achievements over the past year.

BT: When did you start speaking Spanish?

KR: It was part of the curriculum in my, starting in kindergarten. So I grew up taking Spanish as a class, all the way through high school, and then continued here at Princeton.

BT: And when did you first have the opportunity to go abroad and use that language in a Spanish-speaking country?

KR: Not until I came to Princeton actually, I never had been abroad until after my first year here, when I did an internship in Costa Rica. And I remember, I was terrified going in, I was like, I’m going to get the airport and I’m not going to know what to do. And my Spanish is just not good enough. And then I got off the plane, and I was like oh, I understand what’s going on. And that, for me, was the moment when I was like, this is pretty cool, to know another language, and to be able to participate in communities that speak something that’s not English. And so from there, I decided oh, I should probably learn Portuguese, and then hopefully I’m going to add a few more after Princeton. (laughter)

BT: I mentioned in the introduction that you majored in history. Around the time of the Rhodes Scholar announcement, your adviser, Jeremy Adelman, called you “a born historian [4],” which is high praise coming from him. Why has the study of history been so resonant for you, and where does the kind of intersection with Spanish and Latin American studies come in?

KR: Yeah, it’s a great question, because I did come to Princeton thinking, like a lot of people do, that I was going to be Woody Woo major, I was going to do policy, I’m really interested in sort of more domestic issues, surrounding education in particular. And then I took an incredible class the spring of my first year about modern Latin American history, which I had accidentally, the year before, wandered into as a preview student. And I thought I was going to a course on like, popular music, and then I ended up in modern Latin American history. And I was like, I can’t leave now. But that class was really transformative for me in thinking about what history was, because as a high school student, all I did was U.S. history, that was what was offered at my school. And it was always, you know, memorizing Founding Fathers, and the Constitution, so history to me seemed sort of dry and not very interesting. And I had never considered it as a major. And then I took that class, and went to Costa Rica that summer, and I just felt like history has a way of being able to capture both what is so distinctively human, and also to bring sort of the rigor of the social sciences, and to combine sort of humanistic, as well as social-scientific inquiry. And that really drew me in as a discipline; and also, I think history’s awareness, especially for the field that I work in, in Latin American history — it’s awareness of its own historicity, and the way that it’s also a product of the times in which it is written. So this sort of conversation between past and present was really powerful to me.

BT: And your senior thesis deals with Mexico in particular. What was it about Mexico that sort of clicked with you that was interesting for you?

KR: So I worked in Mexico the summer after my sophomore year and fell in love with Mexico City. It was the first time I had lived in a big city, I was living by myself in an apartment, and it just was an incredible experience. And so I went into my junior year knowing that I wanted to write something about Mexico for one of my junior research papers. And actually, Princeton has a very large collection of personal archives from Latin American authors, including Carlos Fuentes, who’s a Mexican author and public intellectual. And so, I worked with his papers for my first JP, and actually found a document in his personal archive that was really curious and intriguing to me, and that actually led to the question around which my senior thesis was oriented. So I think it was just like a combination of personal, and then sort of intellectual interest in Mexico, and in Mexican politics in the 1960s and ’70s, that got me there.

BT: And you had time to do archival research in Mexico City. How did that shape the project, and just beyond the project itself, what’s that experience like to be a scholar for eight weeks on your own?

KR: (laughter) In some ways very lonely. You have to be a little bit creepy and like, find people and cold email them who you’ve never met before. So I had a few experiences and we’re still in touch. So that’s really great.

I was very generously funded by the history department to be in Mexico City for eight weeks. And I got to the national archive, and I had written my grant proposal based on the online catalog from the national archive, and I had listed down to the level of the archival box what I was going to look at. And I showed up at the national archive on my first day in Mexico City, and I handed the archivist this list and said I’d love to look at this presidential collection, and she looked at me like I was kind of crazy, and said, “I’m sorry Miss, there are 4,000 boxes in that collection, and at some point in the past few years someone took the papers out of all of them, put them in new boxes, and didn’t record where they moved anything. So we can give you six boxes a day from this collection, but we can’t tell you what’s in any of them, because we don’t actually know.” So I was like, I had a sort of panic attack, and I emailed my adviser and I was like, “Help, what do I do, my thesis is like, down the drain.” And he’s like, “That’s normal, don’t worry about it.” (laughter) Which is not the most practical advice, but it was a good step back.

And so then I went back to the drawing board, and I actually ended up looking at a lot of collections that became really integral to my project that I wouldn’t have thought about otherwise. So it was sort of a blessing in disguise. Although it was a very panicked first week at the archives, going through the finding aid, trying to figure out what exactly I could look at, that would relate to the topic I still had in mind. But no, the archival research was integral to the project, and I’m really glad that I had the opportunity to go through that project and come out the other side and still think that history was something I wanted to pursue. (laughter)

BT: You’ve spent time in Mexico City, you’ve studied Mexico, what do you think people in the United States misunderstand or don’t understand about Mexico, and Mexican history, that we should know?

KR: Oh, a lot. (laughter) I think not only with respect to Mexico, but with respect to a lot of the other countries in the hemisphere, especially those that do have, that speak Spanish, in Latin America, and the Caribbean, as well. There is just a tendency to [have] sort of lack a sort of fundamental empathy for people from those places, and to be, to sort of close ourselves off to the stories that people bring, and to the reasons that they’re immigrating, or sort of the hardships they face, but also to sort of overlook the ways in which the U.S. has been complicit in the conditions that have led to the need for people to immigrate and seek asylum in this country. And so I think an awareness of our own role in that history, as U.S. citizens or residents of the U.S., or what have you, that for me is something that I think a lot about, and kind of what historical responsibility I have as a U.S. citizen, and historian of this place.

BT: Getting back to the Rhodes, I imagine one of the wonderful things about it is that by December, you know what you’re doing next year, you don’t have to worry about that in your second semester. What do you plan to study at Oxford?

KR: So I am studying development studies, which is a sort of discipline shift for me. I knew I didn’t want to do a doctorate program at Oxford, and so I was looking at the master’s, and they don’t have a master’s in Latin American history, so I was like oh, this maybe isn’t the best fit for me, I’m not sure, you know, what I would study. And my adviser suggested, “Well why don’t you take a look at development studies?” Which, you know, I’m still lukewarm about in some respects, but I think that, I don’t know anything about economics, and it’s probably important that I do, if I want to be an historian. And so this is just a way to sort of bring in some other disciplines that I have not experienced so far — so economics, anthropology, development studies, theory — and think about how they could inform later work, potentially, as an historian, potentially doing something else.  

BT: Beyond Oxford, where do you see yourself headed, say five years down the road, 10 years down the road? What would you like to be doing, where would you like to be? Either professionally, or geographically, what’s —

KR: Yeah.

BT: — what’s the perfect path for you?

KR: I would love to take a few years to work either for an immigrant-rights group, or to do some work in Mexico City related to gender-based violence and discrimination. And then I think I will eventually end up in a Ph.D. program, studying history. So do a brief interlude working, and then go back to school.

BT: We’re recording a couple weeks before Commencement, you’ve just wrapped up your defense of your thesis, so I’m not sure how much time you’ve had to think about your address to the class. But are there themes or ideas, or experiences from your time at Princeton that kind of stand out that you’d like to incorporate in some way?

KR: I think one is definitely the idea of encounter, and of sort of serendipity, and the ways in which, I tend to have very strong narratives about who I think I am, and what I think I should do, and sometimes learning to let go of those things, and to just sort of metaphorically, but also actually just wander around, and sort of bump into who you bump into, and let that also shape who you are, and how you approach the world, I think is really powerful. And especially in a place like Princeton where there are so many incredible people to bump into, I think it’s a really great place for that kind of discovery.

BT: And your serendipity of walking into that course in Princeton Preview is a great example.

KR: Exactly.

BT: Well Kate, thank you so much for speaking with me, and best of luck to you at Commencement, and in the years to come.

KR: Thank you so much, this was wonderful.

BT: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe. You can find us by searching for “Princeton Alumni Weekly” on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Soundcloud.

This interview was recorded at the Princeton Broadcast Studio with help from Daniel Kearns. Music for this episode is licensed from FirstCom Music.