According to Karen Gusmer, one of the most difficult parts of majoring in Classical Languages with a concentration in Latin is the need to validate it to other people.
“Sometimes people ask, ‘What are you majoring in?” and I say Latin, and they say, ‘Oh, Latin America, tell me about that!,’” she said. “And I have to say, ‘No, it’s something completely different.’”
Although Gusmer intended to declare a major in Classical Studies, which focuses on texts in English translation, classical languages department Chair Mary Pendergraft urged her to consider Classical Languages, a brand-new, more-rigorous program that includes studies of both Latin and Greek.
Gusmer quickly found the professors in the department to be exceptionally supportive and encouraging, both personally and academically. She remembered that before fall break her freshman year, Professor Michael Sloan asked her about her fall break plans, and when she said that she planned to stay on campus, he offered to lend her and her friends his car so that they could drive to Pilot Mountain.
“The fact that he saw me not just as someone who needed help in his class but also as someone who wanted to have a fun fall break with friends, that was awesome,” she said.
In addition, in Spring 2018 she took a class with Professor John Oksanish on the Roman author, architect and civil engineer Vitruvius.
“It was a very hard class,” Gusmer said. “Our final assignment was pretty challenging too, writing a paper about the style and text. I was really struggling and I sent [Oksanish] an outline of what I wanted to say for the final paper and asked if we could meet and talk about it because I was stuck.”
She said that Oksanish offered to meet her at Krankies Coffee in downtown Winston-Salem, where he bought her coffee and discussed her paper with her for two hours.
Fast-forward to January 2019, that paper from her Vitruvius class would come to represent one of Gusmer’s greatest accomplishments in the major. Eta Sigma Phi, the national classics honor society, issued a call for papers for a nationwide contest, and Gusmer’s professors encouraged her to submit her work. Not only was Gusmer’s paper one of just four undergraduate papers to be chosen to be presented at Eta Sigma Phi’s conference, she was also awarded best presenter.
“That was an incredible experience, and it’s something that I never thought I could do if not for the support of people like Dr. Oksanish, who took two hours to meet with me over coffee, or Dr. Pendergraft, who said ‘Hey, you should submit something,’” Gusmer said.
Oksanish, who assigned Gusmer’s award-winning Vitruvius paper, noted, “Karen is an amazing student who brings a broad suite of talents, not to mention great enthusiasm, to our department and field.”
Referencing Gusmer’s athletic prowess, he also joked that her prize for best undergraduate paper “proves that Karen can not only hit the bricks (as she has done with gusto), but also the books!”
The one thing Gusmer loves the most about Latin?
“I love how Latin has been so enduring,” she said. “You see Ciceronian influences on our forefathers. Stuff like that influenced the ways in which people decided to build this country … It’s endured for so long and it’s so ingrained in traditions. As you know, I’m also an old lady and I like old stuff.”