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Demystifying Graduate School

Mendelsohn Awards 2021 Winners: Robin Bernstein

Bernstein met Christofer Rodelo—one of her student nominators for the Mendelsohn Award—when he was a prospective student and emailed her before he even applied. When Rodelo received Bernstein’s thorough answers to his questions, he realized that someone who would take that much care and time to respond to him was definitely someone he wanted to work with further.

Robin Bernstein
Robin Bernstein, Dillon Professor of American History and Professor of African American Studies and of Studies of Women, Gender, & Sexuality

Now, Bernstein is the co-director of Rodelo’s dissertation in American studies, specifically Latinx theatre performance in the 19th century. He also sees her as a model by which to learn how to work ethically, as Bernstein aims to create more equitable environments in everything she does.

“What makes Robin distinctive is that she is holistic in her mentoring approach,” says Rodelo. “She really understands graduate school and academia as an all-encompassing thing and wants to make sure we comprehend the full picture.”

One of Bernstein’s most fervent beliefs is that navigating graduate school should be demystified. She aims to equalize knowledge wherever possible—particularly for underrepresented groups such as people of color, first-generation students, LGBT students, and women—through her course called “Introduction to Graduate School: Skills and Practices for Scholarly Success.”

“Any time someone is expected to know something without being taught it, that is a sign that power is at play,” says Bernstein. “I want to empower graduate students by teaching them not only intellectual skills, but also the everyday practices that enable them to succeed.”

For his part, Rodelo sees this approach as part of what makes Bernstein such a standout mentor.

“Often in graduate school, there’s a hidden curriculum of how to do things, and Robin is unique in that she tries to make those things as transparent as possible,” says Rodelo. “We can ask her anything—from how to put together a professional proposal to how to cold email a professor in the field—and her priority is to make sure we have all our questions answered.”

Rodelo and his fellow GSAS student nominators—Jovonna Jones, Jewel Pereyra, Mary McNeil, Jonathan Karp, William Pruitt, and Allison Puglisi—see the Mendelsohn Awards as a way to recognize outstanding faculty who put students’ best interests at the forefront.

“In academia, a lot of accolades are around research and how much we can produce and how it’s received,” says Rodelo. “This is a unique opportunity to acknowledge the labor that professors like Robin do to mentor students and support the next generation of scholars.”

Photo courtesy of Robin Berstein

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