Alumni Profiles: Hannah Sarvasy

December 17, 2011

Creativity, community, and critical thinking are strong threads running through Hannah Sarvasy’s life. They were nurtured at Walden, and although completely intertwined, each dominates in one of three central activities in Hannah’s adult life: art, the Conservation Corp, and field linguistics. Running through it all is Hannah’s love of adventure.

I had the opportunity to interview Hannah, who graduated from Walden in 1993, just before she headed off to Australia to earn her PhD through the International Institute of Tropical Studies, a program of James Cook University in Cairns. Her work will be writing the grammar of a previously undescribed language. Hannah’s academic career evinces her capacity for critical thinking. Beginning during her college years at Harvard, where she studied folklore and field linguistics, Hannah has intermittently been in the field studying and documenting languages: Berber in Morocco and the Netherlands, the Ethiopian church language Ge’ez in the Netherlands (through a Fulbright scholarship), and more recently the dying languages of Kim and Bom in Sierra Leone. You can watch a New York Times video about Hannah’s work with Tucker Childs in Sierra Leone.

Hannah is grateful for the learning style fostered at Walden, which resulted in irreverent feelings about grades and external evaluation; on the other hand, a self-directed learning style is active and creative. When she found that no one at Harvard specialized in Berber, she had the confidence and skills to go off to Morocco to discover, teach herself, and complete her project on Berber.

Small community life appeals to Hannah. She has found that life in the Conservation Corps leading and mentoring young adults. Hannah began leading trail work sessions in Oregon and the Northwest after college. Among the goals of the work are building a strong work ethic through strenuous work, confidence through pushing limits without breaking, and self-sufficiency in community. She takes pleasure in the small communities the teams form, pulling together to do hard work and live with each other—idiosyncrasies, irritations, and all. Hannah also finds small community life in other cultures in the small villages she lives in while studying languages, where she appreciates the absence of existential angst and loneliness. For several years Hannah has alternated time spent documenting languages and working in the Conservation Corps, becoming part of the communities she finds through both endeavors.

Hannah has always enjoyed writing and art, from early childhood on, particularly drawing, which has led her into the land of cartooning and graphic novels. She cartooned for the Harvard Crimson and self-published the novella Dear Brother about a Moroccan in Holland (where there is a large Berber expatriate community). She has also created graphic primers for the Kim and Bom languages. You can see her work, also including murals and illustrations, on her website. Her graphic short story “The Building Permit” received a Finalist Award in the Narrative Magazine 2010 30 and Below contest and can be read online. Hannah’s creative artwork punctuates her work in linguistics and the Conservation Corps.

Hannah has fond memories of Walden and feels strongly that her experiences at Walden shaped who she is today. Hannah’s family was committed to Walden partially because her paternal grandmother was founder Ida Wilcher’s cousin. From a very young age, Hannah was driven to learn and finish things quickly. She feels that this drive either could have become unhealthy or could have been stifled at another school. She particularly remembers being given individualized work to do and open-ended projects in the Upper Group, crafted so students could apply themselves according to their abilities. Hannah said that she kind of skipped a grade, but because of the mixed-age classes and the strong student community, she had friends in the group above and the transition was seamless. Hannah felt challenged at Walden and didn’t feel like she stood out from the rest of her classmates.

Hannah remembers feeling confident as a young girl at Walden. Her group in the Upper Group was full of energy and they felt like they ruled the world. They would gather in the music room for lunch and create fantasy worlds and gossip. She remembers making femo earrings to sell at the Spring Fair and starting a small business doing games at children’s parties. All these years later she definitely feels that creativity was nurtured at Walden.

I was amazed to learn how many different interests Hannah pursues with passion, depth, and continuity. Talking to Hannah confirmed my feeling that Walden students develop a rich and dynamic approach to learning and living, and carry the Walden legacies of creativity, community, and critical thinking into the world with them. They leave Walden with the confidence to question, integrate, and innovate—all skills which mature as they do and take them in many fascinating and significant directions.

Update: Hannah earned her PhD in linguistics from James Cook University in 2014 and is now part of the linguistics faculty at UCLA.

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