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Letter: Laurentian degree in modern languages led me to big things

Sudbury native Vanessa Natale Rukholm, now a prof at the University of Tampa, said she could have gone to school anywhere — she chose Laurentian
Vanessa Natale Rukholm.

My name is Vanessa Natale Rukholm and I am writing to you today as a proud  alumna of Laurentian University. Like so many Laurentian alumni, I read with great dismay the news that Laurentian University filed for insolvency protection from the Ontario government. 

Now, that dismay has given way to deep sadness upon learning of the significant cuts to programs, faculty, and staff that have all but decimated the institution, cuts that will undoubtedly reverberate across the campus and indeed Northern Ontario for years to come.  

Those cuts include the elimination of the program from which I graduated, Modern Languages, so I write today to convey to the Sudbury community the depth of my indebtedness to that program. I hope my words will underscore the value of this program, like so many soon-to-be-former programs at Laurentian, to students, to the greater Sudbury community, and indeed to Northern Ontario.  

When I graduated from Lo-Ellen Park Secondary School in 1998, I was at the top of my class. Many people expected I could have studied anything and anywhere. This notion of “anything” meant, of course, some very narrow, specific things: medicine or law. 

I chose neither. I was passionate about foreign languages, specifically Italian, the language of my paternal grandparents. 

To the shock (and disappointment, perhaps) of many, I was adamant that I would follow my passion and I was confident that I would find success as a result of that passion. I applied to and received scholarships from some of Ontario’s most coveted universities. However, I knew that I need not look far in order to see my post-secondary aspirations become a reality: the faculty from Laurentian’s Italian program were not only people in  Sudbury’s Italian-Canadian community who I knew and respected, but they were also academics whose scholarship was world-renowned. 

This is not hyperbole: (the late) Paul Colilli is a name recognized and revered by scholars of repute the world over. So, when I was offered the Laurentian University Dean’s Scholarship for Excellence in the Humanities, there was no question in my mind: I would stay in Sudbury in pursuit of a B.A. in Modern Languages. 

My four years at Laurentian were seminal: my love and passion for the Italian and  Spanish languages, cultures, and literary canons only strengthened thanks to the  opportunities I was given to read, to ask questions, to explore.

I studied literary giants Dante, Petrarca, Boccaccio, and Cervantes in their original language while also learning about the history of my people’s immigration to Canada and the evolution of the Italian and Spanish languages. 

I read plays, operas, poetry, and treatises  spanning the Middle Ages to the 20th century. In all of my courses, I was encouraged to explore the farthest reaches of my imagination and to develop my ideas. 

I was offered paid summer research opportunities that opened me up to the world of  paleography. I performed in Le maschere laurenziane’s public theatrical performances. I was an active member of the LU Italian Club’s executive. 

I spent a full year abroad, on scholarship from the Montessori Club of Sudbury, at the Università degli studi di Udine in Udine, Italy. The crowning moment for me, however, was when I was offered to teach an Introductory Italian course at Laurentian in my final year of studies due to a last-minute hiring emergency. 

That experience remains for me the pivotal moment in my professional life: I knew because of it that I wanted to be an educator. 

I also knew full well that that opportunity would likely not have come my way had I been at a different, larger institution. In short, my years at Laurentian were rich and nurtured skills that have served me well in so many different facets of my life and in so many different contexts, my academic career being but one.  

Laurentian’s faculty encouraged me to pursue graduate studies because they saw my potential as a scholar. I was offered a full scholarship to the University of Notre Dame’s M.A. in Italian Studies. I then completed a PhD program in Italian Studies at the University of Toronto from which I graduated cum laude in 2011. 

I taught for several years at multiple universities across Southern Ontario and I now find myself a tenured faculty member at the University of Tampa in Florida, where my degree  from Laurentian hangs proudly on the walls of my office in historic Plant Hall.  

I know, however, that not everyone is interested in pursuing a PhD like I did. So what value can a small program such as Modern Languages offer to those whose  primary goal is not the pursuit of a graduate degree in the field?  

More to the point, besides teaching and research, what can you do with a degree in Modern  Languages? This is a question I have been asked repeatedly over the years and my response remains unchanged: it is, in fact, the wrong question. 

My experience and my training have taught me that a better, more meaningful question is:  What CAN’T you do with a degree in Modern Languages? The answer, of course, is nothing. 

In fact, the biggest tech giants of today have made it clear that because innovation and  change happen at such a fast pace in their industry, technical skills are not at the top of their priority list when looking for new talent. 

Instead, they want soft skills that are much more difficult, time-consuming, and expensive to develop in employees than technical skills; skills that are the domain of the humanities: excellent communication skills, open-mindedness, adaptability, problem-solving,  collaboration, attention to detail, creativity, and intercultural competence to name but a few (Macleans; Harvard Business Review; Washington Post; Seattle Times). 

I  developed every one of these skills in the Modern Languages department at  Laurentian University and I have used them all daily in some capacity ever since. 

I struggle to make sense, then, of why degrees like mine are so often disparaged, belittled, and so often cut when they equip students with the very skills that are  applicable and essential to a vast array of careers. 

Perhaps it is because it is all too easy to minimize the value of a small program to a university, particularly when we  fall into the trap of thinking narrowly and vocationally. However, I know first-hand the impact that small programs can have on individuals and also on a larger community and I believe it is precisely because of their small size that they can have the biggest impact: close contact between faculty members and students can nurture deep and meaningful relationships that inspire students to pursue things  they never thought could be within their grasp. 

My professors at Laurentian became lifelong mentors who continue to play a role in my life to this day. 

I have continued to watch closely from afar all that Laurentian’s Modern Languages  faculty have done to strengthen the connection between what happens in their  classrooms and the Sudbury community and beyond. 

The numerous roles they have taken on to foster strong community links with Laurentian University cannot be underscored enough. What will happen to those relationships now? Who will support those community organizations? 

When I think about my professional journey and what has brought me to where I am, there is no question that Laurentian’s Modern Languages faculty buttressed me to find success in my chosen career: they guided me on a path toward knowledge, equipped me with a vast array of sought-after skills, and pushed me to dream big. 

As Dante famously wrote in Canto XXVI of Inferno, “fatti non foste a viver come bruti; ma per seguir virtute e canoscenza” and it is precisely virtute e canoscenza that  students of Modern Languages at Laurentian have come away with. Not sure what I mean? Just ask a student of language; they’ll tell you. 

Like many of your readers, I mourn the elimination of so many programs whose value may have been difficult to quantify, but whose loss will have ripple effects we  have not even begun to fathom.  

I mourn for the terminated faculty and staff who may have no choice but to leave the community they had built a life in, taking their ideas, their skills, and their resources elsewhere.  

I mourn for the students of today and tomorrow who may not be able to remain in the North to complete their studies, inevitably leaving their community prematurely, in many cases for good.  

I also wonder whether Laurentian can continue to call itself a university going forward when so many important programs have been cut.  

Who will make and write beautiful music to move us? Who will work to unlock the secrets of our  species and tell us why those secrets are meaningful? Who will study the economic  impact of COVID-19 on Sudbury?  Who will investigate the health of the forest, of Northern Ontario’s lakes, and provide guidance in essential restoration efforts? Qui apprendra pourquoi les cultures francophones et autochtones du nord ontarien ont  un impact important dans nos écoles publiques et saura donc enseigner nos écoliers de façon réfléchie et respectueuse? Qui aidera une future mère francophone à accoucher? In spite of all these unanswered questions and many more, I remain hopeful that from this dark chapter in Laurentian’s history, something good can arise. After all, as Cervantes famously wrote in Don Quixote, “no hay libro tan malo que no tenga algo bueno.” For the sake of the Sudbury community and for Northern Ontario, I sure hope he’s right.  

Vanessa Natale Rukholm, PhD 

Associate Professor of French and Italian 

University of Tampa 

Tampa, Florida