Rachel Hellman was a Sociology major with minors in Writing and Design. Graduating with Latin Honors in Sociology (Magna Cum Laude), she is a member of Alpha Kappa Delta International Sociology Honor Society. Rachel has also been included on the Dean’s List several times, was a member of the Undergraduate Council for a year, was the Editor-in-Chief for Armour magazine and a member of Washington University for Undergraduate Socioeconomic Diversity, was the co-founder of Tech Together as well as the Data Transparency Task Force. Additionally, she was a Member Director for Design for America, a teaching assistant within the Sociology department (for Professors Collins and Cunningham), and received a Small Change Grant from the Gephardt Institute for Community and Civic Engagement.
Reflecting upon her initial interest in Sociology, Rachel commented, “I chose to major in Sociology because I found the course work offered by the subject to be some of the most fascinating, inclusive, and important work happening on campus. The faculty and staff associated with the Sociology department at WashU are some of the kindest, smartest, and most dedicated people I have ever met. I wanted to change my perspective of the world - because I saw college as the best time to undertake such a self-project - and Sociology offered me a lens towards doing just that.”
Rachel’s Honors thesis (a faculty-mentored independent research project) was an interdisciplinary and qualitatively-based investigation into the “discourses surrounding disaster versus the actual experiences of disaster in Valmeyer, Illinois, a town deemed by experts as a “best case scenario” of relocation after natural disaster.” Describing her project a bit more, she explained, “ After The Great Flood of 1993 destroyed much of the infrastructure of the original village, residents of Valmeyer collectively purchased farmland and rebuilt the entire village a mile uphill. The move was difficult, but most residents self-reported high levels of satisfaction. Engaging ethnographically with modes of associated discourse offered by Valmeyer’s “insiders” and “outsiders.” I interrogate the moral schemas respondents in a community lauded for its resilience invoke post-disaster. I then examine how those schemas map upon or contradict national policy, or what is left behind in those accounts, and how those moral frames of judgment intersect with lived experiences of post-disaster recovery. My data and analysis points to the pervasiveness of hegemonic cultural projects of individualism, meritocracy, and neoliberal ideals in discourse surrounding the idea of resilience in natural disaster.” Her findings concluded “that these moral-schemas mask: underlying structural inequalities, emotional and trauma-based processing, and responsibility on the individual rather than the state for disaster recovery.” She continued, “This data suggests that by uncritically engaging in narrow and assumed conceptions of resilience, we fail to see the underlying contradictions and successes surrounding place and community in the face of disaster.”
Rachel has several favorite memories within the Sociology program; “there are too many to choose one,” she laughed. Some of these include study nights with Candace [Hall, former Administrator for the Sociology Department], her opportunities to chat with and TA [be a teaching assistant] for Professors Collins and Cunningham, presenting at the American Sociological Association’s national meeting with professors and her classmates, “getting tacos after ASA with Ellie Zimmerman and Dan Chai and learning all about their dreams,” Professor Cunningham’s “objectively groovy playlists” that began each of his class meetings. Her list went on: “every single long night spent in law library with Celia working on our thesis, when Celia got into a PhD program at Brown, getting to conduct interviews in Valmeyer, presenting and completing my thesis, and being surprised by Professor Collins and Professor Cunningham in graduation regalia (and my mom crying, naturally).”
Her advice for rising Sociology students? “OFFICE HOURS! GO TO THEM! They may just change your life, seriously. The professors in this department love having conversations about what interests you in their courses, so take them up on it. Take classes on a broad spectrum of topics and don’t be afraid to challenge yourself, often and intentionally. Some of my biggest ‘aha’ moments came from taking a class that just sounded interesting, or on a skill I always secretly wished I was better at. It is never too late to redefine who you are, but only you can decide to do it.” She continued, “Become friends with your fellow SOC majors because spoiler alert: they are definitely some of the coolest kids on campus. Get excited by people who get excited about sociology and doing important work, they’re your community. Be gentle on yourself always, and remember that you need to fail a lot in college to figure out who you are. It’s just baked into the formula, there’s no avoiding it so lean in. You got this! Also, there is often candy and other delicious goods in the SOC Suite, so definitely take advantage of that.” Rachel divulged of her experience with the Sociology program, “I appreciate so deeply the department’s intersectional and action-based approach towards learning and interrogating inequality, and the multitude of ingenious projects faculty are constantly working on. Not only this, but I felt as if the faculty in the Sociology Department really wanted me to grow and succeed as a student and human. I was treated as a scholar (even as a wee freshman) with an imperative to be an active member of the St. Louis community. Being a Sociology major at WashU was truly the highlight of my undergraduate career.” She elaborated, stating that, “I felt as if I had a family on campus (and into the future), and I know not many people can say that about their major. I am overwhelmingly grateful for the ways in which I have been challenged, radicalized, made more inquisitive, more thoughtful, more thorough, and most importantly more compassionate, as a result of my four years as a Sociology major at WashU.”
Although Rachel is unsure as to what her next steps after graduation will be (“and growing to accept that,” she added), she hopes to further pursue her interest in environmental journalism, anticipating returning to school for a graduate degree in Journalism or Sociology. Her main goal, however, is “to maintain an unrelenting interest and passion in [her] own life and the lives of others, whatever that may mean.”