Rebecca Nykest received her Ph.D. in medieval and early modern European history from UCI in 2010. Her research focused on the education of Spanish girls in the 16th century. Her studies in both Spanish and education have found relevance in her current role as principal of Prince William Academy in Virginia.
Tell me about your research while at UCI. How has that research served you after graduate school?
In a nutshell, my research explored girls' education in 16th century Spain and its strategic use as a political and cultural tool for prioritizing "purity of blood." I took two trips to Spain to conduct research for my dissertation, and although I majored in Spanish as an undergraduate, I gained real fluency in the language as a graduate student. I utilize that skill every day in my current position, in speaking with prospective families from abroad and from right here in Virginia. More broadly, my research taught me to analyze the cultural politics inherent in education policy and practice, and it continues to inform my approach to formulating Prince William Academy's values and goals.
What has your professional trajectory been since earning your Ph.D.?
I took longer than most to complete my graduate program, and by the time I got my Ph.D., I no longer saw myself seeking a tenure-track position. Tenure-track prospects had narrowed significantly during my time in grad school, and I didn't relish the prospect of moving my family to wherever I could find a job. Instead, right after graduation I took a position at a small private school (preschool to 8th grade) in Virginia. I have a family connection to the school, and it started out as a learning experience and a way to earn some income and start paying off my student loans. I did a bit of everything at first, from answering phones to subbing in classrooms. But I found my real niche in writing the school's newsletter and marketing materials and in working with school families. I eventually took on the role of communications director and handled writing school policy, shaping and articulating our mission and vision, and performing community outreach.
How would you describe your present job? What is your day-to-day like?
After years as the communications director, I became assistant principal and was promoted to principal almost four years ago. My day-to-day life is extremely busy and fast-paced, and I spend only a small part of it at my desk. I hire and help train teachers and staff members, perform classroom observations, handle student discipline and parent outreach, oversee the Parent Teacher Council, apply for grants, oversee curricula and liaise with the local school district. In a pinch, I also change diapers and act as custodian!
What kinds of alignments do you feel there are between your Ph.D. area of study and what you do now?
My dissertation research focused on girls' education and the larger cultural and political agendas it served, especially in terms of racial identity. The school that I wrote about in my dissertation, The Colegio de Doncellas Nobles de Toledo, served as a tool of exclusion and functioned to enhance the status of "pure-blooded" girls in a city with an uneasy history of diversity. My research – along with the various forms of critical theory we analyzed as part of the graduate history program at UCI – continues to inform my understanding of the modern intersections of race, gender and education as well as shape what I prioritize in my family and student outreach at the school. I am always mindful of the role that schooling itself (and not just curriculum) plays in shaping one's sense of identity and place in the community and how essential diversity and inclusivity are to cultivating a holistic learning environment.
Thinking back on graduate school as preparation for this career, what skill or tool do you think your education best developed that you rely upon now?
So many aspects of graduate school provided ideal preparation for a career as a private school principal: the long days and nights spent meeting deadlines; performing under pressure; being both a student and a teacher; seminars that taught me to analyze information and distill my thoughts; applying for grants and budgeting the funds; attending conferences and speaking in front of crowds; and the stellar examples of collegiality and mentorship I had in my professors. My entire grad school experience imparted skills that I rely upon every day at work.
What skills do you feel were least developed that would have helped you either transition to this field or work more capably in this field?
While it was wonderful to have the opportunity to teach, I think that more emphasis on pedagogy and methodology would have served me well in my particular field. I remember feeling tossed into the role of teaching assistant without a strong sense of which tools would be most useful in the classroom. The focus was on the material we were expected to cover, which of course made sense. But in making my way in my current field, I know I would have benefited from a stronger foundation in teaching, and I think the same could be said for those who do become professors, too.
What advice would you give to current graduate students in the humanities?
I would say that even if you don't pursue a career in academia, graduate study in the humanities opens doors to countless possibilities and will give you a distinct advantage in any field. This has been the case for me, and it also applies to my own hiring practices. The basic skills you acquire as a graduate student – learning how to identify reliable information, how to analyze it and think critically about it and how to apply it broadly – are universally valuable and sought-after and will always set you apart.