A Well-Traveled Path
Perhaps the most remarkable thing you learn about Kathy Thornton ’13 when you talk to her about college is this: She didn’t want to come. Perfectly content with reading books and following the rules within the comfort of familiar surroundings, she was hesitant about branching out to new things. But when she arrived in Chestertown, Washington College changed all of that. “I told myself that I should try new things and that I would regret hiding from what I did not know. ” Since then, few students have grabbed their four years with such eager and industrious hands.
She’s traveled to San Francisco, Peru, and Easter Island in the far reaches of the Pacific Ocean. She’s conducted primary historical research in Jamestown, Va., the Maryland State Archives, and the Library of Congress, and scientific field research in Maine’s tide pools and the Eastern Shore’s meadows. Since environmental studies and history seemed to go hand in hand in her evolving perceptions of the world, she decided to major in both, creating a kind of “environmental history” major with a minor in biology and concentration in Chesapeake Regional Studies. She quickly got involved with the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience, which fostered a passion for history. And, she worked with faculty in the Center for Environment and Society to develop the broader picture about how history and the environment interact, whether on the Chesapeake Bay or on a Chilean island 2,300 miles offshore.
Thornton can trace the sparks of this passion to her first real Washington College experience, a four-day pre-orientation trip on the Sultana. Traveling the historic Chester River on the replica schooner opened her eyes and fired a curiosity about how the natural world and history were inextricably linked. She followed that with the Chesapeake Semester, which culminated with studies in Peru. And she capped it with her weeklong trip to Easter Island over spring break in 2013, a project funded by the Douglass Cater Society of Junior Fellows.
“I’ve really learned curiosity here, and constantly questioning my own surroundings,” she says. “That certainly came about the first week I was here on the Sultana, but definitely on the Chesapeake Semester, because you’re constantly in a new environment and new situation, and you can’t know everything about where you are now, so you have to ask questions.” Easter Island, she says, “really was a culmination of the liberal arts education, because I was drawing on everything I had possibly learned to develop a sense of place and understand the environment and culture.”
Thornton says the bonds she has made with her professors and the many opportunities she’s been able to take advantage of have changed her irrevocably. “The close-knit relationships between students, faculty, and staff offer opportunities for collaboration where learning is brought to a much more complex and elevated level,” she says. “Washington College provides a means for students to build upon our academic foundation and then branch out to better understand the world around us.”
As President of the Cater Society of Junior Fellows and co-president of the Student Environmental Alliance, she has learned the power of dreaming and challenging expectations. “I feel like I’m in a great place right now,” she says. “I’ve learned that if there is something that intimidates me or seems unlike me, I should at least try it because I think we learn the most when we go outside our comfort zone to embrace new things within reason. And I look at the world with a constant curiosity, knowing that asking questions will teach me more than just getting answers.”