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What Am I Doing in Grad School?

What Am I Doing in Grad School?

What Am I Doing in Grad School?

I suspect this is a question I will ask myself from time to time over the next several years. What am I doing, with my undergraduate degree over thirty years behind me, trying to learn how to be a student again? Why am I adding the stress of reading assignments, tests, and lengthy papers to my already demanding full-time job? I hope that when that question pops up in the future, I’ll remember what I’m writing today.

First the facts: I’m pursuing an M.A. in Liberal Studies at Wake Forest University. For those of you who know my politics, you might be thinking I know plenty in that realm already. That’s not what this is about.

Here’s what the website says about it:

In accord with the University’s long commitment to liberal arts education, students in our program explore timeless human questions and study essential human experiences through the perspectives of diverse academic disciplines. Placing into dialogue the traditional branches of the liberal arts curriculum, Liberal Studies at Wake Forest is especially devoted to the interdisciplinary examination of human ideas and values.

In other words, the MALS program will allow me to investigate the things I’m most curious about. And what fascinates me right now is my great-great-great-great grandmother Sarah Wait, wife of Wake Forest founder Samuel Wait.


Sarah has drawn my interest much of my life. My mother almost named me after her. Back when I was dabbling in fiction, my protagonists were often called Sarah Wait. About 15 years ago, I took a stab at helping my mother transcribe some of Sarah’s letters. I own her copy of the New Testament. When I first moved to Winston-Salem, I went to a costume party dressed as Sally, as she called herself. (Which I realize makes me an incredible nerd.)


Despite all those tugs from Sally over the years, I haven’t really known that much about her. She’s been somewhat of an historical footnote to her husband, Samuel, who made his name canvassing the backwoods of North Carolina raising money for the Baptists, and helping to found a university.


From what I’ve learned about her so far, Sally seems a complex heroine, and a product of her time. As the Second Great Awakening reached a feverish pitch in early 19th century New England, Sally uneasily deliberated her possible betrothal to Samuel Wait, questioning her suitability to be a minister’s wife.

Portrait of Samuel Wait ©2002 Wake Forest University, Office of Creative Services. Photo by Ken Bennett. 336-758-6009.

Portrait of Samuel Wait
©2002 Wake Forest University, Office of Creative Services. Photo by Ken Bennett.

Despite Sally’s early hesitations and lifelong ailments, she spent her life supporting Samuel’s calling as her own. At times, they were estranged for years while he pursued his own education and ministerial career. She endured the heartbreaking loss of a child during one such separation, unable to summon the strength to tell him by letter until a few months later.

Later reunited, the Samuel and Sally spent two years at the helm of a jersey wagon, two trunks filled with their worldly goods behind them and a toddler at their feet, traveling across North Carolina to raise money for the Baptist mission.

With my curiosity about Sally piqued, I have the luxury of being able to access to her of letters and journals at the Z. Smith Reynolds Library, as well as being able to mine my mother Byrd Tribble’s extensive research on the family. And, I’m excited about pursuing this project in the context of an advanced degree. I’ll begin coursework this fall with Dr. Bill Leonard’s History of the Baptists (because you can’t study the Waits without studying the Baptists); and if all goes well, I’ll then begin the process of formulating a thesis on Sarah Wait.

It’s not unusual for a woman of Sally’s time to take a back seat to the historical record of her husband. I think it’s time to share her story with the world.

And that, my friends, is what I’m doing in grad school.