The following is the text of Dr. Hilaire Kallendorf’s address at the 2018 Honors Welcome. We are grateful to Dr. Kallendorf for allowing us to share this powerful reflection with those who could not join us at that event.
Howdy! I’ve been where you are. This is the 3rd time I have had the honor of addressing the best and the brightest Aggies at this annual welcome event, and inevitably the experience brings back memories for me. What seems like only a short time ago, I was sitting in one of your chairs, nervous and expectant, excited but hesitant. I can honestly say that I never dreamed I would be where I am today, and it is only through the grace of God that I am standing here.
I think they keep asking me to come up here and do this because my life story reads like an Aggie fairy tale: young girl from West Texas turns Ivy League princess. If my story had a title, I think it would be “From Aggie to Ivy.” I came here as a freshman with a scholarship from the honors program, lived in Lechner Hall where I was voted “busiest Nerd,” went on a study abroad program the next summer and conducted research in the Dominican Republic as part of an honors contract with an A&M professor. Like some of you here today, I had the privilege of becoming a University Scholar. By the time I was a senior, I had written up the results of my research and published them as an article in a Cambridge Press journal. It was that article, I am convinced, that opened the door for my admission to Princeton University’s doctoral program in Comparative Literature.
That’s the fairy tale version. Now for the less glamorous part of the story. I’ve been where you are. I was born in San Angelo, Texas—not a suburb of Dallas. I was not an Aggie by heritage; in fact, no one in my immediate family even finished college. I wish I could say that I had always dreamed of coming to A&M. Wrong again. Actually, I had my heart set on going to a private school, but I couldn’t afford it. My parents contributed nothing financially to my college education. I wish I could say that the Dominican Republic was a golden summer of Caribbean breezes and prett beaches. Oh, it was that, all right—along with unairconditioned anthropological museums, multiple power outages daily, barely a trickle of water coming from the shower, political unrest so frightening my host father wouldn’t let me out of his sight, and mosquitoes so big that insect repellant became a part of my daily toilette. I wish I could tell you that finishing my dissertation was a piece of cake. Instead, I finished it two weeks before my baby was born, and by that point I was so pregnant I could not even reach the keyboard. Not so glamorous, after all.
I tell you these things only to make the obstacles, the dreams, the experiences, and the accomplishments accessible to you. I’ve been where you are. Texas A&M can be a large and scary place—that is, at least, until you manage to find your niche. For me, the honors program provided the experience of a small liberal arts college within a Carnegie One research university. That combination turned out to be the best of both worlds. I can tell you from my own experience that the best faculty here are as good as the professors at any of the top universities in the world. But whether you receive quality instruction from them depends, in large part, on you and whether you seek them out.
One way to do that is through faculty mentorships, discussion groups, honors contracts, independent studies, and the nation’s most prestigious honor society, Phi Beta Kappa. Phi Beta Kappa is an academic honor society with the mission of “fostering and recognizing excellence” in undergraduate liberal arts and sciences. Founded at the College of William and Mary on December 5, 1776, it is the oldest such society in the United States. Membership is granted to approximately 1% of college graduates, and today there are 285 chapters and over half a million living members. Phi Beta Kappa (ΦВΚ) stands for philosophia biou kybernetes – “love of wisdom is the guide of life.” To qualify for membership, you must earn exceptionally high grades and take a balance of coursework distributed among the sciences and the humanities. There is also fulfill a foreign language requirement.
Another way to make the most of your education and even make the leap from Aggie to Ivy is through the essential process of undergraduate research, which is one of the opportunities provided to you by LAUNCH. Undergraduate research was a life-changing experience for me. That research became the germ of my Ph.D. dissertation. As my first faculty mentor said to me (and I’ve never forgotten it), “Research is addictive. It is like opium.” I’d like to invite you also to experience a high unlike any you’ve ever felt before. Research has led me to the Queens College library in Cambridge, England, where I climbed the same medieval book ladder that Erasmus climbed. Research has led me to the Biblioteca Nazionale in Naples, where I held in my hands one of only three extant autograph manuscripts of the Baroque poet Francisco de Quevedo. Research has led me out to Hollywood, where I met with William Friedkin, the director of the movie The Exorcist. Research has led me to Washington Heights in Manhattan, where I would breastfeed on the train all the way but then leave my child with my husband in a different neighborhood because near my library it was too dangerous. And research has led me demon-chasing all over Italy, looking for paintings and sculptures of exorcisms in some of the oddest places. I even found a sixteenth-century fresco of an exorcism inside an Italian police station! There are no adventures like the ones you can find in the world of scholarly research. And there is no thrill like that of uncovering for the very first time a rare seventeenth-century artifact of great significance to the scholarly world.
All of these things can be yours for the asking. In my years of teaching here at A&M I have had many undergraduates working either as my research assistants through the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program or as my independent study students, some with honors contracts. One of my students combed through microfilms, looking for eighteenth century women readers of casuistry, or case morality. As a freshman, one of my students was able to get her paper accepted for presentation at a national professional conference. Another student of mine caught my “demon-chasing” bug and did research for my exorcism in art project as she visited churches all over Europe. And still another student—and this was really nostalgic for me—went down to the Dominican Republic to look at a new museum there in light of my findings from an older museum in the same city ten years earlier.
I and the rest of the faculty welcome you into this great community of scholars. I urge you to make the most of the opportunity you have been given here today. “To whom much has been given, much will be expected.” I’d like to encourage all of you, no matter what your major, to participate in the effort to internationalize our campus by taking foreign language, literature, and culture classes. These can be wonderful stepping stones to successful study abroad experiences. Finally, I’d like to encourage the women in particular not to give up on the idea of eventually juggling both a family and a career. It doesn’t have to be just one or the other. You can have it all. I’ve been where you are. Thank you.
Dr. Hilaire Kallendorf ’95 is a Professor of Hispanic and Religious Studies and a Cornerstone Faculty Fellow in Liberal Arts at Texas A&M University. She holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Princeton University. She was awarded the $50,000 Hiett Prize in the Humanities, along with numerous other grants. Her research and teaching deal with many aspects of religious experience, especially as belief relates to literature and culture. She is the author of four academic monographs, Exorcism and Its Texts: Subjectivity in Early Modern Literature of England and Spain (University of Toronto Press, 2003); Conscience on Stage: The Comedia as Casuistry in Early Modern Spain (University of Toronto Press, 2007); Sins of the Fathers: Moral Economies in Early Modern Spain (University of Toronto Press, 2013); and Ambiguous Antidotes: Virtue as Vaccine for Vice in Early Modern Spain (University of Toronto Press, 2017). She is general editor of A New Companion to Hispanic Mysticism (Leiden: Brill, 2010), which won the 2011 Bainton Book Prize for Reference Works from the Sixteenth Century Society, as well as A Companion to Early Modern Hispanic Theater (Brill, 2014). She translated Spanish Baroque poet Francisco de Quevedo’s Silvas into English (Lima, Peru: Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos, 2011). With her father, a celebrity tennis player, she wrote a memoir, Acing Depression: A Tennis Champion’s Toughest Match (Washington, D.C.: New Chapter Press, 2010). Her collected essays on religion and literature have recently appeared in Spanish translation as La retórica del exorcismo: ensayos sobre religión y literatura (Iberoamericana, 2016).