Rachel Kolb (New Mexico & St. John’s 2013) is currently completing the MSc in Higher Education at the University of Oxford, having previously completed the MSt in English Literature (1900 – Present). She graduated from Stanford University with a B.A. and M.A. in English Literature. During her time at Stanford, Rachel served as Co-President of the Stanford Equestrian Team, a peer tutor at the Hume Writing Center, and a weekly columnist for the Stanford Daily. Next year, Rachel will be starting her PhD in English Literature at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.

Rhodes Project: How would you describe your time at Oxford so far? What stands out most?

Rachel Kolb: My time at Oxford has been defined by the people here. I’ve loved the opportunity to engage with a variety of brilliant people studying different subjects that I’ve never thought about before. When I think about my time at Oxford, aside from the studying and time spent in cafes and libraries, I think about having long dinners at formal hall or going out for pub nights where I’ve gotten to know people on an intimate level. During many conversations with friends and peers here, I’ve felt challenged to evaluate and articulate my own perspectives on a range of issues, which has been incredible for my personal growth.

Aside from that, there are a lot of things that stand out for me about my time here. I’ve been able to travel outside of term time and see more different parts of the world than I’d ever had the opportunity to visit before. That’s opened my perspectives to many other cultures and ways of being. Closer to home, I also have very fond memories of places, activities, and traditions in Oxford. I’ve lived near Port Meadow this year, and I have very fond memories of running or walking outside in that space, or visiting The Perch or The Trout with friends. Both are beautiful outdoor pubs and good places to reflect. Other details stand out, like rowing for St. John’s College for a brief period last year and spending time museum hopping in London. There are also many strange, mystifying traditions in Oxford – like the May Day celebrations – that I will never forget.

Rhodes Project: What does your current research focus on in the MSc in Higher Education?

Rachel Kolb: I am curious about how deaf and hard-of-hearing students experience accessibility and inclusion at mainstreamed American universities. I had a very fascinating and, at times, challenging undergraduate experience as a deaf student in a large, mainstream elite educational institution. My research focuses on how other deaf or hard-of-hearing students have adapted to their universities and how they perceive their experience. I’m especially interested in how they balance their accommodations in the classroom with their social lives and extracurricular opportunities, and how they perceive their interactions with teachers, peers and mentors.

Rhodes Project: What piqued your passion for English literature? What issues/sub-fields in the study of literature do you find the most interesting?

Rachel Kolb: I was always the kind of child who enjoyed reading and writing – that was normal for me. I was always reading some book or another, or working on some story or another. When I was in high school, I pursued writing more seriously with a number of projects, and at that point I realized that I had the power to shape the world through language and words. Really, everyone has that power, but discovering it for myself was such a thrill, and still is. I discovered an immense strength that comes from writing and the written word. I enjoy immersing myself in literature and learning more about the world through other people’s writing and language. When I started college I was already thinking about being an English major, but I was also interested in other subjects like the sciences, biology, human health – even policy. After taking several classes, I was hooked on literature and all its complexities.

Next year I’m going to be starting a PhD at Emory in English Literature, with a specific focus in disability studies – I’m very excited. I haven’t always focused on disability studies in literature – it took me a little while to realize that that was a perfectly valid field of study. In the past, I’ve focused on 19th and 20th century literature and on Southern Gothic literature. I also enjoy postmodern literature and thinking about issues of self-representation and the complexities of the narrative voice in any piece of work. I haven’t yet been at an institution with an explicit focus on disability studies in literature, so I’m looking forward to exploring that field more at Emory next year.

Rhodes Project: Can you tell me more about your writing process as an aspiring writer? What kinds of ideas/themes are you itching to write about at the moment?

Rachel Kolb: The themes that I am always obsessed with – I think that writers all have their obsessions – are how language shapes our understanding of the world and how communication happens in different ways. I’m interested in how we establish understanding through our conversations and how we even arrive at the point of understanding other people. Connecting to that, I’m also interested in representing deafness and disability on the page in different, creative ways, and challenging some of the conventional literary and cultural discourses and assumptions about those topics. There are so many rich issues to explore and write about in relationship to deafness in fiction and creative nonfiction, but the literary terrain surrounding those areas is still very sparse.

So, in my own writing, I tend to ask questions about communication, language, deafness, disability and interpersonal understanding, although I do write about other things too as they come up. I’ve tended to write more nonfiction and essays than fiction lately, but I’d like to return to and explore more fiction in the future. As for my writing process, writing always requires discipline, and deadlines are also hugely helpful. I find I sometimes don’t have as much discipline for personal writing as I’d like in Oxford. There are too many events and activities going on! I’ve tried to find a balance between staying committed to my own writing and also taking advantage of the people and experiences here. I write best in the mornings, when I block out time to work on a specific project and set a deadline for myself. Cafes are an ideal place for me to work. I’ve also been lucky to have friends in Oxford who write, and we meet on a regular basis to share our projects with each other. Their support and their willingness to look over drafts and talk about writing-related issues with me have been a big boost.

Rhodes Project: How do you respond/react to recent discussions in the media about humanities education becoming increasingly ‘irrelevant’, particularly for a changing economy?

Rachel Kolb: I actually encounter this question a lot, and I have to ask myself why I am always so defensive about it. Scholars in the humanities are increasingly put in this position of being defensive, but I think that writing off the humanities as ‘irrelevant’ takes a very narrow view of what it means to be educated and a good citizen. Education that focuses on vocational or practical skills definitely has a place, but when education is so goal-oriented then it just pursues the “known knowns,” rather than engaging in a process of enabling people to think creatively and relate different topics to each other.

I recently went on a trip to China with other Rhodes scholars, and we often spoke with professors and even businesspeople there about goal-driven education and the prioritization of math and sciences. The humanities are so important because they help students develop the ability to reason, think critically, deconstruct an argument and engage in civic life. Plus, I’d say that the elements we find in the humanities are part of what can create a good, thoughtful and interesting life.

Rhodes Project: Where do you see yourself in 10 years, both professionally and personally?

Rachel Kolb: My PhD will consume the next five years of my life, so we’ll see where I end up after I finish. I’m on an academic trajectory and I am looking forward to that, but I also want to deliberately bridge the gap between academia and public audiences. I would also like to be involved in disability advocacy, do my own personal writing and work on different projects that encourage people to start conversations and think differently about access, accessibility, language and narrative.

From a personal perspective, I would like to have a horse again eventually, keep traveling and enjoying time outdoors, always keep learning new things, and ensure I cultivate and maintain strong relationships and friendships. I hope I don’t lose touch with the people, from both Oxford and other places, who have been very important to me at this stage in my life.

Rhodes Project: You are a vocal advocate on issues of deafness and disability. What disability issues are you reflecting on most at the moment?

Rachel Kolb: Lately I have been asking myself about the role of education and exposure in encouraging more overall levels of comfort and awareness with disability. It is still a marginalized topic that often doesn’t enter the larger diversity conversation, and many people don’t have the awareness for how to talk naturally with someone with a disability. They don’t know what to say, what to ask, or they don’t think about how inclusive they are being at all, so it’s all about raising awareness for everybody’s benefit. People are also sometimes unsure of how to be good allies or be supportive without being insensitive or overbearing. Disability is also such an interesting identity group, because that word can be so fluid and can refer to so many very different human experiences. I know that I personally have a lot to learn.

When I think in particular about deafness, I often reflect on the lack of awareness that hearing people have of Deafness (illustrated by the capital ‘D’) as a cultural identity rather than a disability. Many people have no idea that there is a Deaf culture at all. I have been thinking a lot lately about that kind of Deaf cultural pride and linguistic difference and how it intersects with other parts of the disability rights movement. There are shared concerns, of course, but there are also a lot of places where d/Deaf issues are different from other kinds of disability issues. I think about how to promote those kinds of conversations and awareness/exposure about d/Deaf issues, beyond just increasing awareness that ASL or BSL (and other international sign languages) are their own distinct languages. That’s one starting point, but there are so many situations where people are afraid to engage with deafness or disability in general. My belief is that the best approach is to just ask directly or to go educate yourself – that would make our world a much more aware and welcoming place.

Rhodes Project: Who are your most formative role models and mentors? What memorable advice have they given you?

Rachel Kolb: I have had a lot of mentors come from different places in my life. Some have been professors, who have been wonderful sources of discussion and reflection about my future goals. I have also had role models and mentors through equestrian sports, who believed in my leadership abilities. During my time tutoring at Stanford’s writing centre, I also had professors and coordinators mentor me in how to engage with students about their writing in an empathetic and understanding way. I also consider some of my high school teachers and older graduate students I met at Stanford to be mentors.

Lately, I have been reflecting on what it means to have a role model or mentor who is very different from you. As the only deaf student in my high school and at Stanford, it was always difficult to find any other deaf people who were doing what I wanted to do. I have been reflecting on whether I need to go find d/Deaf role models, or if I can move through my career as a trailblazer. To be honest, it’s not always a comfortable place to be.

As for advice, it sounds simple, but “go get ’em” is probably one idea that’s recurred in my life over the years. Sometimes you have to put yourself and your ideas out there and commit and go for what you want.

Rhodes Project: Can you tell me more about your passion for equestrian sports? When did you first start riding horses?

Rachel Kolb: Horseback riding is a passion and obsession I have had for my entire life.  I had a preschool teacher when I attended to the New Mexico School for the Deaf who introduced many of her students to her horse. I first rode when I was 2 years old, and it stayed with me from then on. I think there is something so special and enthralling about horses, particularly for children. Riding a horse teaches you the ability to direct and lead such a powerful animal, in addition to all the character-building aspects of caring for them outside of the saddle, and that can be very empowering for young people. I think that’s often why young girls are so drawn to horses. I had the horse ‘phase’ that many children go through, but I never seemed to get over it!

For me, horses give me a kind of physical language and deep sense of connection that I don’t find anywhere else. I don’t have to say anything; I can just use my body to communicate and feel. My time with the Stanford Equestrian Team was one of the most satisfying aspects of my college experience – I was out in the barn for several hours every day, despite an otherwise busy schedule. Leading the equestrian team taught me about responsibility, patience, setting and achieving goals and interacting with other members of the team. And the horses themselves were always the best, most patient teachers. Unfortunately, I don’t have much of an outlet for that passion here in Oxford. Equestrian sports are wonderful in that it is always possible to participate in them, throughout your life – so I can always revisit horses and riding in the future. 

Back to Scholar Profiles K-N

© 2015