When seniors gather on Samuel Mather lawn for Kenyon’s Baccalaureate ceremony Friday, May 18, at 1:30 p.m, they will be addressed by a faculty member beloved in the Kenyon community: Associate Professor of English Sarah Heidt ’97. Imparting wisdom on students is not an unfamiliar mission for Heidt; she was chosen to give the 2010 Baccalaureate address, and in 2015, she gave the Founders’ Day address as well as spoke to seniors at an annual alumni dinner.
Heidt joined Kenyon’s faculty in 2004. She won the Junior Trustee Teaching Excellence Award in 2010 and from 2014–15 served as Kenyon’s faculty-in-residence, living in Norton Hall. In fall 2017, Heidt was honored with the Faculty Advising Award for bringing “a level of genuine caring to her role as an advisor, regardless of whether the matter at hand is personal or professional.”
Ahead of her livestreamed address, Heidt spoke with one of her students, English major Anna Libertin ’18, about life transitions and how students can satisfy their intellectual hunger even after leaving Kenyon’s classrooms.
You graduated from Kenyon in 1997 as a classics and English double major. In the interest of preparing for my own graduation from Kenyon, I was wondering: What was going through your mind when you graduated?
I was a mess — going from professor’s house to professor’s house crying, like, “How am I supposed to leave? I’m going to miss you so much!” Eventually, I decided I needed some time to myself, so I went to Sunset Point and cried for a while, cried myself out, packed up the rest of my stuff, went home and steamed on forward with my life.
I was mostly excited. It definitely felt like an ending, but one that I was happy about. I was done, and I was ready to go. I mean, I wasn’t like “I’ve got this! I know everything that’s going to happen!” but I was ready for the next part of my life to start.
I always say that I “fell” into being an English major, because everyone comes here as an avid reader, and then you take one English class and before you know it, you’ve taken 12. Did you feel the same way?
Well, I “fell” into being a classics major, because I came here dead set on being an English major. But, I did think about bailing on English because it got more difficult and I didn’t know what I was doing. I kind of lost that sense of, “I know how to do this!” I can look back on that now, and I know that thinking “I’m better at classics” was actually me thinking “I don’t know as much yet about what I don’t know.”
In that sense, I think you have an interesting perspective on how to be an advisor for Kenyon students because you know exactly how those doubts feel. How did your time here influence both the way that you teach and the way that you advise now?
One thing that I think back on with a lot of fondness and a lot of gratitude is the fact that a number of my advisors just let me sit in their offices and talk, or cry, or just panic about things. They gave me the gift of time to try to figure out who I was and how to grow up. A lot of my strategy is giving people time and support while listening for the glimmer of a really good idea that is coming into existence. There’s a lot of value to intellectual wandering and not knowing exactly where you’re going or what you’re going to end up doing.
I was also wondering if you recognize differences in Kenyon graduates now than when you went to school here. Are people studying different topics? Facing different challenges?
You all are walking into a world that feels more aware of complexities around identity, whether it’s around race or class or gender and sexuality, than the majority of my graduating class was. That is not to say that somehow my entire class graduated unaware of that stuff, but I graduated way too unaware of those questions and issues.
One of the things that has been a constant, and I hope it stays a constant, is that real thirst for learning. I feel like I’m starting to have conversations with people who are about to graduate about how you satisfy that kind of thirst for learning when you’re not in a classroom anymore. That, to me, is a real marker of Kenyon students — that intellectual spark and fizziness and excitement around learning is what makes it a pleasure to stay here.
What advice would you give yourself 20 years ago when you were in the position I’m in now, about to graduate?
Don’t feel that you need to know how your story is going to go — because you don’t, and that’s a good thing.
Ask for help sooner than you think you need to.
Trust in the fact that you’re not perfect and that is ok. There’s a great Rebecca Solnit quote: “Perfection is a stick with which to beat the possible.” I wish I had known that. I wanted so much to do everything perfectly. It just closes so much off because I get so rigid trying to do things exactly right.
Everything is going to change. The disasters won’t come from what you think they’re going to come from. The greatest joys are not going to come from the places you think they’re going to come from — they’re probably going to come from nowhere or the places you least expect. Being alive to those things is being alive!
I would also say, you have so much more energy and potential than you ever had any idea about. Use your time well. Love the people you love, and do that as long as you can.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.