It’s no secret that Bard College Berlin has an astonishingly small student body — small enough that I could look around one afternoon in the cafeteria and recognize all but a few faces. It makes for an intimate atmosphere and brings comfort to the small but warm community of Pankow that surrounds us. Interestingly enough, while many of us recognize familiar faces, how many of us truly know the people behind them? A face that has always intrigued me has been my advisor, the Associate Dean of BCB, Kerry Bystrom. One of the most familiar people on campus, Kerry is always recognisable with her short blond hair bobbing through the sea of faces. So, one day, I walked into her office and asked if I could interview her. What better way to get to know someone than to put out a full blog post on their life?
Professor Doctor Kerry Bystrom (I know!) was happy to sit down with me for a lengthy chat about her life story.
“Where do I start?” she asked as we sat down.
I stared stupidly at her as I realized I had no idea how to do this. How do you talk to someone about their life? I improvised: “Maybe just start with an introduction? Where were you born, where did you study?”
She nodded and cleared her throat.
Kerry Bystrom was born in Massachusetts, USA. Growing up, she was very passionate about sports; she smiles as she tells me that she was on the cross country team, squash and softball teams for her school. Besides being interested in sports, she was also a dedicated student and, after high school, was admitted into Dartmouth College where she did a double degree in Government and English and Creative Writing.
“I had no clue what to study,” she admits. “I thought I wanted to study genetic biology! I took many of the classes for it, and then one day a friend convinced me to take a PolSci class with her and that was it: I was in love. It’s okay to not know immediately. I didn’t!”
After completing her B.A., she worked for a year teaching English at a boarding school. Chuckling, she tells me that she had to share a dorm with thirty 16-year old girls. “It was the first time I’d ever taught, and it was a challenge because I was, maybe, 21 back then? And these girls were 16, so it was difficult figuring out how to be an authority… I’m actually still trying to figure that out!” she laughs.
But teaching gave her a way to give back to the institutions that she’s learned from all her life. She tells me earnestly that schools have always been a very important part of her identity – her parents were teachers, too.
The next step was to finish her PhD in English, and, because the sheer scope of Literature allowed for flexibility, she was able to combine her interests in both Politics and Literature to develop a project revolving around Literary Politics. She pursued her PhD at Princeton University.
Sometimes you talk to people and you’re blown away by the way in which they’ve organized their life: the adventures they’ve had, their commitment, and the dedication with which they’ve approached their commitments. Listening to Kerry talk about her PhD program was an incredible reminder of what goes into making your academic experience enjoyable: you’ve just gotta grab the bull by its horns.
During the course of her five-year program, which she calls “just so awesome,” she surrounded herself with incredibly diverse people. She took a semester off and volunteered in Guatemala, where she worked for a grassroots bilingual newspaper dedicated to implementing the 1996 Peace Accords; she travelled to Argentina and South Africa for research semesters — and probably gave her research advisors a sound headache organizing all of this.
“I really took advantage of my advisors,” she says. “ I also took advantage of the flexibility of the program, which is what invariably allowed me to have these experiences.”
Talk to Kerry about her program one day. I promise you, you won’t be bored by her answers.
Travel also allowed her to better formulate some of the burning questions about her research interests in Truth Commissions as a form of transitional justice and its role in society. (Truth and Reconciliation Commissions are usually formed to deal with past crimes carried out by previous governments in power). “It really helped me develop my thoughts,” she says. “I had to confront what my real interests were, and they were working on the idea of truth commissions.”
She pauses for a second, opens her mouth as if to say something, and then closes it. We’re quiet for a few moments as she’s thinking. Veering from the chronology, she offers a bit of advice:
“If I’m being completely honest, I really emphasized getting a good grade over taking risks that would allow me to understand and see things in a new way. If I hadn’t gone to graduate school, I wouldn’t have had the experiences that I’ve had.”
Hearing the Associate Dean talk to you about the overemphasis on grades and the academic pressure that follows is a once in a lifetime opportunity that I wasn’t going to let pass so easily. Sensing that this was an issue that Kerry felt strongly about, I wanted to hear more. What did she mean by that?
As if hearing my thoughts, she automatically responded: “I mean, in college I didn’t take a playwriting class or, for example, a filmmaking class, and now I’m thinking I really ought to have taken advantage of the opportunity to do something outside my academic interest! I would have loved to learn how to make a film, but I didn’t because I thought I’d never do it well enough to get a good grade, which is so ridiculous. It just seems like the wrong horizon.”
No matter how much faith you have in your education, it is always heartening to hear someone tell you their own experiences and that, in the end, the letter grade just doesn’t matter.
During the last year of her PhD, Kerry got a job teaching the First-Year Seminar at Bard Annandale, and after she wrapped up her PhD thesis, she moved to the University of Connecticut to work in their English Department and Human Rights Institute.
(Another thing to ask Kerry about is her PhD thesis. I got distracted for twenty minutes just talking about it, and I must have asked her a million questions, all of which she graciously answered. Seriously, ask her!)
If you’re wondering when Bard Berlin is going to show up in the story, wonder no more. In the early 2010s, with the merger between Bard College and ECLA*, Kerry accompanied Florian Becker (they met in grad school) to Berlin after he was asked to transfer from Annandale there. She started as both a faculty member and an official ‘Bard Representative’, handling the Begin in Berlin program from the very beginning, which made transitioning into the Associate Dean role later a much easier task.
“I’m very happy with the progress we’ve made so far. Of course, BCB is a work in progress, but we’ve made some great strides and we’ve seen incredible growth since we started. I mean, you see it.” And I do see it. In my freshman year, the school comprised a little over 150 students, and this year, my last year at BCB, we have about 270 students! That’s a massive jump.
She elaborates on the school’s progress, noting how much the infrastructure has grown and the variety in programs BCB has been able to offer. “I see so much potential in this school and I can see how things here are flourishing without sacrificing the quality of the students at all. The arts program has expanded, we can now support two full degrees, we recently hired a Middle Eastern Studies faculty member, and it’s been really satisfying to see this community grow and cohere,” she says.
“Of course, if I could, I’d just give us a huge endowment of 20 billion dollars and have everyone come here for free!” She laughs. “But I’m happy with what we’ve been able to do with what we have.”
As I wrap up the last of my notes, I notice her staring at the wall. There’s a picture of last year’s graduating class and multiple posters of BCB events. “Schools have always been an important part of my identity, which makes my investment in BCB a very real thing.”
I nod along silently, putting the last of my things in my bag. As I get ready to go, she leaves me with one last quote, a touching one, and one that stayed with me because it was a sentiment I fully reciprocated.
“You know, it’s interesting, but BCB has always been familiar to me. I’ve always felt at home on campus.”
I leave, in full agreement, with a huge smile plastered on my face. BCB is home.
*ECLA was the name of our college until 2013