At Home Abroad
by David Raney
Not everyone can boast "Joni Mitchell was kicked out of my high school." And not everyone would. But Maria Corrigan drops this tidbit into conversation one day recently, and somehow it fits. A chat with Maria is likely to cut a pretty wide swath: Moscow to Saskatoon, Hamlet to The Sopranos, Romanian spelling to Bob Dylan bootlegs.
Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, which expelled Ms. Mitchell to stardom, may have been Maria's starting point but she hasn't stayed still anywhere for long. Between high school and Emory she spent two years at the St. Petersburg Conservatory studying piano, voice and music theory. She graduated from Emory in May with a BA honors double major in comparative literature and film studies and a masters degree in film, squeezing in summer study in Paris and Prague and one cold, cold winter term in Moscow.
What drew her to the steppes in February 2007? Emory's new Moscow Theater Art School, where she and nine other students studied Russian theater, film and language and took voice and dance lessons. All ten students entered this full-immersion art experience with previous knowledge of Russian, but Maria had one other connection to the program: its director, associate professor of Russian Elena Glazov-Corrigan, is her mother.
What has it been like, I ask Maria, to study at a college where both parents are professors? (Her father, Kevin Corrigan, is professor and director of undergraduate studies in the Institute of Liberal Arts.)
"Since my parents have always been extremely hands-on with our education, it wasn't so out of the ordinary," Maria says. Where some students in her situation might have studiously avoided the relatives across the quad, Maria took classes from both. "They've always dedicated themselves to developing an intellectual community," she says, "so I grew up surrounded by their students. College wasn't really so different."
The intellectual habit appears to run in the family. Maria's brothers, John and Yuri, are finishing doctorates at the University of Toronto (English) and Princeton (Slavic Studies). Her sister Sarah is in high school.
Soon Maria will add to her own growing academic credentials. In August she began study for a PhD in film and media studies at the University of California–Santa Barbara, where she'll build on her Emory work in Russian and Eastern European film. During her months in Prague during the summer of 2006, Maria studied 1960s Czechoslovak new wave films as well as photography and Czech history.
"I became fascinated by the conversation going on among Russian, Polish, Czech and Yugoslavian filmmakers," she recalls. Under the constant threat of censorship, denouncement or worse, "artists had to say difficult things obliquely. I remember clearly an image in a Russian film of a red suitcase on a conveyor belt, repeated exactly in a later Polish film." Indirection and misdirection becomes essential. "There's a Russian saying about it," she adds. "Or really a gesture: to touch this ear [reaching over her shoulder to the far side] with this hand."
For her masters Maria studied the partnership between Russian director Grigori Kozintsev and Russian composer Dmitry Shostakovich, especially their collaboration on a 1964 Hamlet adaptation. Her MA thesis received Highest Honors—Matthew Bernstein, professor and chair of film studies, describes it as "publishable level scholarship"—and she may expand it in her doctoral work to include King Lear (1971), another Shostakovich collaboration and Kozintsev's final film.
If you're going to do this kind of work it helps to be adept at languages, and it's safe to say that Maria qualifies. She grew up speaking French at school and English at home, minored in Russian and German at Emory, and admits to "intermediate proficiency" in Czech. She'll also admit, if pressed, to two principal vices, coffee and television. Given her schedule and accomplishments, it's hard to imagine that one would be possible without the other.
Ask around, faculty or friend, and the chorus of praise for Maria is striking. Maria's doctoral work will be supported by a Charles Elias Shepard scholarship, announced in April, and Dee McGraw, director of Emory's National Scholarships and Fellowships program, calls Maria's application "the most intellectually exciting and compelling essay that I read. The committee was very impressed and moved by it."
Ariel Ross, a comparative literature graduate student and longtime friend, once had Maria as a student and maintains that despite a "façade" of being laid-back "she's an incredibly hard worker" and "fabulous to have in class." Another friend, Seth Wood, praises Maria as "selfless . . . extremely intelligent . . . a devoted daughter and sister." Matthew Bernstein adds a quartet of virtues that anyone in any field might covet: "Brilliant, charming, indefatigable, multi-talented."
All of which will likely embarrass Maria, but that may be the price to pay for being both an overachiever and a genuinely nice person. Oh, and she wants to learn how to play the banjo.