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Scenes from The University of Rhode Island

Humanities fellowships awarded to URI graduate students -- Fund research on nonviolence, literary naturalist, Virginia Woolf

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KINGSTON, R.I. -- May 5, 2004 --What do nonviolence, the literary naturalist John Burroughs, and Virginia Woolf have in common? The answer is University of Rhode Island English Ph.D. students Sue Peterson of Providence, Steve Mercier of Exeter, and Andrea Yates of West Warwick who have just been awarded humanities fellowships by URI’s Center of the Humanities for their research into these diverse subjects.

Peterson, Mercier, and Yates are just three fellows in a growing list of graduate students and outstanding humanities faculty members who are receiving fellowships, thanks to URI’s Humanities Campaign, which was launched in 2002 to bolster the coffers of the Center. The original goal for the five-year campaign was set at $500,000. In the preceding year and half, URI has already raised $535,000 and has lifted its fundraising bar to $1-million. As an added inducement to giving, donors can name their fellowship.

Four alumni funded this latest round of fellowships. David and Tracey Maron of Charlestown, class of 1982, funded Peterson’s research on Percy Shelley and his discourse of nonviolence. Another alumnus, James Duffy, class of 1978, funded a fellowship that provided Mercier the opportunity to study Burroughs’ journal and letters. Douglas Ramos, class of 1980, funded a fellowship that allowed Yates to research Woolf’s papers, the majority of which are at the New York Public Library.

"It felt so good to distribute funding for graduate research," says Marie Schwartz, director of URI’s Center for the Humanities. "It's only been in the last year that money has been available through the Center for this purpose. Before this, graduate students in the humanities were largely left to their own devices to fund research projects, usually out of their own pockets."

Born in Fargo, North Dakota, Peterson grew up in the midwest during the Vietnam era. While her brother was fighting the war, she was home protesting it. She was a nurse for the Grateful Dead for five years, traveling with the rock group as part of a medical team that worked through the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic. Many years and miles later, Peterson funded her doctoral studies on the connection between Percy Shelley and Gandhi while working as a nurse in the Intensive Care Unit at South County Hospital.

"War and other types of violence have always seemed to me so unnecessary and indeed, evil," says the 48-year-old who was recently hired as an assistant professor of English by Curry College in Milton, Mass. Peterson is particularly compelled by the work of Bernard LaFayette, distinguished-scholar-in-residence and director of URI’s Center for Nonviolence and Peace Studies, and plans further collaborations.

Mercier never heard of John Burroughs until he heard URI’s English Professor Nancy Cook’s compelling lecture about him. Cook asked her students to ponder why Burroughs, so famous in his lifetime as a nature writer, was no longer popular. That question eventually led to Mercier’s dissertation.

"His writings played a very important role in fostering people’s affection for birds and the natural world," says the graduate student who notes that Burroughs helped create the genre of nature writing in the United States and wrote 27 books over 55 years. "His influence helped to establish the first national bird protection laws in the country," says Mercier who became an enthusiastic bird watcher since researching his subject. "It is important for people to read authors, such as Burroughs, to learn how to observe and appreciate other species and habitats. His scientific observations were infused with emotional responses and ethics and still provide a strong model for those wishing to cultivate an environmental consciousness."

Andrea Yates became interested in Virginia Woolf while working on her master’s degree at Middlebury College. She was drawn to URI because of Dr. Stephen Barber’s innovative work on Woolf and his critical theory in general. "Woolf’s work has far-reaching political and ethical implications for contemporary readers," says the 32-year-old doctoral candidate. Yates also considers French philosopher Jacques Derrida.

Anyone interested in contributing to the Humanities Endowment Campaign should contact Tom Zorabedian, senior development officer for the College of Arts and Sciences, 401-874-2853 or