Student collage of research presentation
Challenging the Classics
Trinity researcher dives into unexplored perspectives of ancient authors

If you’re going to talk to dead poets and orators, it helps to speak a dead language.

But for Savannah Wahlgren ’23, the tongues of ancient Greek and Latin have never been more alive than they are today at Trinity University, where they just graduated as a classical languages major. A star researcher from Houston who loves a challenge, their work took them through the works of Ovid, Homer, and Cicero.

“I like a challenge, and Greek and Latin definitely give me that,” Savannah says. “I enjoy the breadth of things I can do in classics: history, sociology, literature, language, incorporating all these things into studies and research. And just being able to read texts in their original language, which gives you an insight into people who lived so long ago but had such similar, human experiences to us today.”

Savannah, who eventually wants to teach at the university level and plans on pursuing a Master of Arts degree and Ph.D. after Trinity, says they're ready for this next challenge thanks to four undergraduate years of challenging academics spent in a flexible liberal arts environment, bolstered by strong hands-on opportunities in research, and supported by engaged faculty and a tight-knit friend group.

Finding the Humanities 

It was Savannah's love for another type of classics—classical music—that initially led them to Trinity. “I played the flute, and wanted to do flute performance, but also be at a school where there were good academics.” 

Even after falling in love with the classical studies department their first year, Savannah was able to keep playing flute in the Trinity Symphony Orchestra throughout their time on campus. That’s life at a flexible liberal arts university, where the vast majority of musicians aren’t required to be music majors to be part of such ensembles.

“I ended up taking a class my freshman year in HUMA, because I heard it was hard, and I wanted to do the hardest one,” Savannah says, laughing. “And I remember being really impressed that one of our professors could, you know, read Greek, and I was like, “I want to be able to do that!”

While studying the classics (and music!) at Trinity, Savannah spent the majority of their time grappling with the big questions asked of students in the humanities, a collection of core disciplines that examine the human experience.

“I feel like it's important to study the humanities because I feel like that's the creation of art and history. That's kind of what gives life meaning and what makes humans special,” Savannah says. “You study that to remember what has happened in the past as we move forward. I think studying the humanities also gives us different ways of looking at things than you might get coming from a [STEM] perspective. It's a different lens to view the world.”

Focused Faculty

Savannah found help in focusing this lens from a dedicated, undergraduate-focused set of Trinity faculty who emphasize hands-on opportunities in and outside of the classroom.

“All the classics courses I took were really great,” Savannah says. “We have such a great department here, especially [Dr. Tim] O’Sullivan. I took a lot of classes and did research with him, and he's just really great at interacting with students and creating a dynamic environment in his classroom.”

Savannah (left) worked closely with classical studies professor Tim O'Sullivan on various research projects during their time at Trinity.

Savannah says not many people associate cutting-edge research with the classics: “When you think of research, you think of a science lab and like test tubes, so it can be kind of confusing to think, ‘Well, what would research look like if you're doing like Greek or Latin?’” But at Trinity, students in the humanities get to approach their subjects with the same rigor and support as any student in a white lab coat.

“I was fortunate to be involved in a lot of research on campus, basically as soon as I started classics my first semester that I started taking Greek,” Savannah says. “I mostly heard about it through older students that were helping me learn about our classics program, and that’s how I discovered all these different opportunities.”

Although they began as a first-year with zero experience, Savannah quickly took flight. Starting with the late classic professor Corinne Pache, Ph.D., on translating and transcribing medieval manuscripts of ancient poet Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, Savannah then went on to join O'Sullivan’s unique “Roman World Lab,” where they analyzed some speeches by classical orator Cicero creating a database of all the metaphors he used. 

Lab Works

O’Sullivan’s “Roman World Lab” is a perfect example of how students like Savannah get to research the classics in a unique, supportive environment at Trinity.

Unlike many one-off, one-semester classics projects, this lab fosters long-term partnerships between students like Savannah and faculty like O’Sullivan. And this experience paid dividends for Savannah, who ended up doing further summer research (and their senior thesis) with O’Sullivan as a mentor.

In Summer 2022, Savannah was part of Trinity’s Mellon Initiative Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship, which provides not only housing and stipends for faculty-student research teams to work over the summer but also travel funds for them to present their work at national conferences.

“I’m really thankful for that opportunity,” Savannah says. “I was able to stay at Trinity over the summer and have eight or nine weeks to just do research, to get funding for anything that I might need, and to travel as well. And it was also great that we had meetups once a week with the Mellon students because having that support with other students and faculty who were also doing humanities research was really nice. We all understood what kind of stress or struggles there were in doing this type of research. There was really great support.”

Savannah and O’Sullivan’s work culminated in a project called The Portrayal of Mothers in Ovid's Metamorphoses, which examines Ovid’s portrayal of motherhood in the titular poem. And this project in turn, led to Savannah’s senior thesis, “Felicissima Matrum: the construction of maternal identity in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.”

“I looked at how motherhood is portrayed in poems that were written during a time of political change under Rome’s first emperor,” Savannah says. “Rome had just moved from a republic to basically a monarchy, and there was a lot of renewed control and fixation on women, really pressuring them to return to traditional roles.”

Talk about an ancient human experience with modern-day ramifications.

“I looked at these poems to see how that view was being challenged by [other] artists [of the time],” Savannah continues. “I thought it was also important because, in general, and especially within the classics, there has been a very misogynistic history. So, I think it's really important to draw focus to women in the histories that we study and especially on mothers.”

Support System

Even while facing challenging topics and senior thesis deadlines, Savannah says they drew energy from their tight-knit group of friends and family.

“I have a lot of friends in and out of my department who are all similarly ‘wired,’ and we all got stressed and overwhelmed a lot of times with academics,” they say. “These friends always understood whenever I felt overwhelmed with something, and we supported each other. My family is also very supportive of me, and they were really great during my time here.”

Savannah (center) connected with a tight-knit group of fellow classical studies students and researchers at Trinity.

And in addition to their actual friends and family, Savannah had faculty members who filled these roles as well during challenging times.

“This past year, graduate school applications and getting a thesis done was very tough,” Savannah says. “And faculty members were really helpful in getting through that, providing the support and help in courses and in general with coping with everything else.”

Savannah’s next big challenge might be the hardest one of all: leaving their friends and faculty mentors at Trinity University.

Nevertheless, it’s one they’re ready for after four years.

“I feel I've just matured a lot and kind of ‘come into my own,’ both inside the classroom and out,” Savannah says. “Trinity has helped me and taught me to value my own ideas and contributions not just within the classroom but to my community.”

And one day, when their nameplate has a “Dr.” at the front, Savannah says they want to help the next generation of classics researchers ask big questions, too.

“I've had great professors here at Trinity,” they say, “so I want to try to be that for future students, too.”

Jeremiah Gerlach is the brand journalist for Trinity University Strategic Communications and Marketing.

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