Thai-Catherine Matthews ’14, 2020 Gates Cambridge Scholarship Winner


Tell us a little bit about the Gates Cambridge and your planned studies! 
The Gates Cambridge is this incredible gift—an opportunity to pitch your scholarly passion project to a committee that's willing to fall as hard for your subject as you have, provided you can illustrate how your passion can translate beyond the classroom and into a better world for all. It was exactly the alignment I was looking for, because I've always hoped that my interest in the medieval could shape my career as a professor seeking to promote social justice and equality. I fell in love with Western medieval literature for its hidden potential; I think of it as having an untapped ability to to change the conversation surrounding the racial, religious, refugeed, and gendered Other by showing us how 'the West' has always been a diverse space defined by these Othered categories. I think that's apparent in the early literature of the West (medieval literature) and it was by making this relationship clear that my ideas and the Gates Cambridge mission aligned. 

What (or who) are the major influences in your life that have inspired you to pursue this path?
I come from a family of teachers; my mother is even an English professor—so I think I always knew I wanted to be involved in academia. The path to medieval literature itself was a little less clear, however, and so when it comes to thinking about what inspired me to pursue this path I have to think about the classroom experiences I had as a woman of color looking for her place in a Western literary canon. I was looking for ways to explore how those two parts of my identity matched up—if they matched—and in finding that there was room to make that argument, that it was an argument that needed to be made for all the students of color looking to bridge these disparate parts of themselves...that's when I knew I wanted to become a medievalist who challenged our traditional concepts of the 'Western'. 

How did your time at Wellesley shape your interests, or encourage you along this path? Your professors? Career Education?
Wellesley was hugely influential in my journey to Cambridge and winning the Gates-Cambridge Fellowship. I have always believed that literature could weaponize empathy against prejudice, connecting people via what makes us most human—our stories. That’s why I became a writer and ultimately a researcher, but it wasn’t until I became a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellow at Wellesley that I commenced training to become a professor—training to use literature to bridge academic thinking and real-world problems—that I recognized how stories could be diplomatic. It was also a Wellesley cross-listed course (Francesca Southerden's ‘Desire from Dante to Milton’) that first introduced me to the medieval literature I would fall in love with, and it was from that class that I decided to pursue study abroad at Oxford through the Wellesley-Oxford Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Studies exchange program. Were it not for that exchange program building on a foundation that Wellesley and its Mellon-Mays program had helped me shape, I'm not sure I would have had the courage to apply to the world of Oxbridge in general or the Gates in particular.

What did you learn or gain from going through the Gates Cambridge application process?
Applying for something this huge was, for me, about learning to be honest with myself. What do I study, why do I study it, why do I think it's worth asking others to be invested—I had to dig deep into my memories and motivations in order to be able to write the truth. So I think I learned a lot about myself, and my goals—but I also had to acknowledge my limits. I applied to the Gates Cambridge because I needed the opportunity it offered to grow, and to become more grounded. In acknowledging that whole picture of myself, I learned both about the person I am and the person—the professional, the global thinker, the academic bridge-builder—that I want to become. 

What inspired you to take the leap and apply? Or, what would you say to encourage your peers to apply?
I was absolutely convinced I wouldn't be a Gates the point where I honestly thought I would be wasting time and energy on trying to shape an application. That was when my graduate advisor stepped in and really encouraged me to apply. That, in addition to family encouragement, really can be summed up in the seemingly trite but ultimately so true question 'what do you have to lose by applying?'. I would have lost this opportunity altogether had I not pushed myself to try—to stop rehearsing reasons why I wasn't good enough and simply try. So I guess my advice when it comes to reaching (and applying) beyond your comfort zone is this: the risk is always, always, worth the potential reward!  

What most excites you about this opportunity?
I've been dreaming about getting back to the UK and studying medieval literature since my time there as an undergraduate through the Wellesley-CMRS exchange program. To be able to go back, to know that I've achieved that dream—it means so much more than I can possibly say. It's also an honor to be able to do so because I'm hoping my research can shape future social justice work in the literary humanities; it's important to me that the work I love have positive real-world effects and that my journey to become a better scholar is one that both makes me a better global citizen and better equips me to teach future global citizens in the classroom.