After serving as dean of Commonwealth Honors College for five years, Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina has chosen to transition into a role as faculty professor of English. Gerzina is an award-winning author and expert in Victorian and African American literature, and was inducted to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2017.
“I’ll miss the camaraderie,” said Gerzina of her departure. “I really liked working together to put through some of the major changes we were able to do. That built a great sense of community among us, which was really nice.”
Gerzina, who was appointed dean in 2015, says her most important accomplishment was reinstating the senior thesis requirement for Honors students. Collaborating with department heads, faculty, Honors Program directors, other deans, and administration, Gerzina reinstated the thesis project, which took two and a half years of effort.
“We were out of step with almost every other honors college or program in the country,” Gerzina said. “It was really important that our students end their academic experience with something that is creating new knowledge or bringing together work in a culminating experience.”
Year after year, Gerzina spoke at the first-year Induction, Honors scholarship and Celebration of Excellence ceremonies, bookending the academic year with speeches on success and the future. One of Gerzina’s favorite moments from the Honors Induction is the pinning ceremony, where parents applaud their high-achieving students, and students cheer on their parents to thank them for helping them get to that point.
“It’s really warm and exciting,” said Gerzina of the Induction ceremonies. “Then, of course, I got to see those same people graduate.”
Before serving as dean of Commonwealth Honors, Gerzina served as a chair of the Department of African and African American studies at Dartmouth College. She also spent time as a professor of English and Africana studies at Barnard College, Columbia University, and as associate dean of faculty at Vassar College.
Despite serving various positions at many prestigious universities, Gerzina says her time at CHC felt different than previous roles. Other than having to frequent her GPS to find her way around the often under-construction UMass campus, Gerzina appreciates the approach UMass students take to their education.
“It was very exciting to be part of a public university that believes in public education,” Gerzina said. “To see students who really chose to come here when in many cases they may have had options to go other places; it felt really exciting.”
Since she has given so many speeches over the years, I asked Gerzina what she would tell herself five years ago in a hypothetical convocation speech with the knowledge she has now. She would reassure herself that she would still have time to continue her scholarly work despite being dean, and quell the notion that Commonwealth Honors is an elitist college.
“As special and wonderful as the Honors College is, our students are UMass students first and Honors College students second,” Gerzina said.
Despite the busy schedule, Gerzina was able to publish two books during her tutelage, including Britain’s Black Past and a compilation of Frances Hodgson Burnett novels, including The Secret Garden, A Little Princess, and Little Lord Fauntleroy.
As a professor, Gerzina will teach two courses this fall—English 300 Junior Year Writing with focus on Black London, and English 492D Children’s Literature, surrounding the topics of “Pirates, Orphans, and Empire: The Victorians in Children's Literature.”
“It’s not just reading kids’ books,” Gerzina said. “I use one book to talk about Darwinism, another to discuss why the orphan was such an important figure at the time, so things that had to do with social history as well.”
Beyond teaching, Gerzina has a schedule full of exciting ventures lined up in her future. She has been asked to consult on a couple of feature films and will continue to contribute to various books, including writing her memoir on growing up biracial in Springfield, Mass.
“I’ve lived in three countries and five states,” Gerzina said. “I’ve been around the block, but growing up mixed race at the time I did was very different from now. I think I only knew two other mixed-race people when I was growing up. I really want to capture that time and think about what it was like then versus now.”
Gerzina is also developing The Black Wife in British Literature and History, a book on Black and mixed-race women who married British men, ranging from the Tudors through the early 20th century. She will take a research leave during the spring 2021 semester to work on these projects and to travel.
For now, she will pass the baton to incoming Dean Mari Castañeda, UMass professor of communications and associate dean for equity and inclusion in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences.
“I’m delighted that she’s going to be the new dean,” said Gerzina, adding that the Honors College team “is really wonderful at what they do, and I’m happy she gets to be a part of it.”
Beyond her role as a professor, author, consultant, and scholar, Gerzina is looking forward to seeing her grandchildren more.
“I consider it a great honor to have been the dean of such a wonderful college for five years,” said Gerzina.