Sylvia Feghali is an undergraduate intern in Education and Public Engagement at the Ransom Center, a position which interested Sylvia because she wanted to work with people within and outside of the Ransom Center, facilitate interpersonal relationships, and strengthen her communication and public speaking skills. Sylvia is a junior majoring in urban studies and sustainability studies, which inform her interest in community development and how city planning and space influence the way people come together. She sees a connection to her studies and her internship through her work to create a space for volunteers and members to learn, have conversations, and enjoy themselves.
What does a typical day of work look like for you?
It depends on what projects I’m working on, but usually I have something that’s related to a book club, whether that’s doing research on what materials to pull, reading the book, or writing discussion questions. I also help plan events, so that can involve coordinating with venues or calling about catering menus or other things that go into event planning. So far I’ve helped plan book club show-and-tells and discussions, volunteer field trips, volunteer continuing education sessions, and volunteer appreciation parties. I haven’t been the sole person planning most of these, but I did have the opportunity to take the reins on two projects: a field trip to Esther’s Follies and an intern panel showcase for continuing education. I’ve also had the opportunity to sit in on and contribute to other planning-related meetings for educational outreach and membership services to brainstorm future developments in programming or events that might strengthen the Ransom Center community.
What are some projects you’ve completed, and of those, which is the most important to you?
Right now we’re working on creating a docent website, so I’m doing research on what other institutions have in place for their docents to make sure we have the right resources for ours. The most comprehensive project that I’ve been working on has been supporting the book clubs in general. I have done some of the legwork for selecting books, which we base on what we have in our collections, and we narrow them down based on things like the number of pages, that it’s something that people want to read, and that we’re not oversaturated with one genre or style of writing. I compile all of the research that goes into it and propose books to my supervisor Lisa Pulsifer, Head of Education and Public Engagement. Once we’ve narrowed that down, we take a look to see what kinds of materials we have in the collections and make sure that there’s enough material to actually put on display. If there are only one or two boxes of materials, it’s hard to curate an experience to dive into. That involves doing research into how to connect the dots between pieces and why they’re important to the book itself. For example, if we decide to pull a photograph of the author’s family or letters between an author and their loved ones or close friends, we have to be able to bring that back to why it’s important to the book. I’ll often read the book and come up with discussion questions, and I work with Lisa to bring the “show and tell” part back into the discussion and explain why the collection materials are important. The most recent book we read was Scoop by Evelyn Waugh, and we’re about to do A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace. I’m also working on creating a way to streamline the selection process. We look at what we have done in the past and what our book club contenders are based on all of those criteria like page count, genre, to make it easier to select.
How do you prepare for the public speaking aspects of your role?
Part of my role is giving tours in the gallery, and I did that a lot more in the fall because it worked with my schedule better. It’s hard to prepare for them, and I think the only thing that is useful is just getting the research done. Even then, I’ll know everything in my head and still worry about missing stuff. At the end of the day, it’s impossible to give a tour and say everything, especially when you have all of that information in the back of your mind. What I usually like to do to prepare for my future tours is write a short reflection on what happened, something that was positive, and something I feel like I can improve after each tour.
What should the next intern who holds this position be excited about?
Everything! I feel like I have the opportunity to talk to so many people and build relationships with them even though they might not be in my department. I always talk to the people at the front desk before I give my tours and learn who is visiting the gallery that day. On that note, I meet so many visitors who are interested in so many different things and who bring different ideas and knowledge to the tours that I give. Working with other interns in the intern office is always interesting, and working with Anna Boxall, Event Coordinator, on event planning and getting to talk to visitors services deepens my connection to the Ransom Center.
How do you see the Ransom Center’s impact on its community, both at UT and across Austin?
I think it brings people together that have such diverse backgrounds, and it gives them a space to have conversations. I think we see that a lot in students who come to visit specifically for their classes. I’ve shadowed a couple of classroom instruction sessions, and I always find those really interesting. Actually interacting with primary documents in a classroom setting opens up so many doors to what you can learn .Giving tours in the gallery is more thematic, whereas in the classroom you can actually dive into specific documents. It gives people something to talk about and think about and ponder, that is rooted in something very specific, and I think that is unique.
How has this internship influenced your academic interests or future career?
I think it’s really made me realize the value of working with a good team and how different people can bring different perspectives that are important to a project. I’ve also learned about how it’s possible to throw out ideas that you might not be really sure about, but they can really take root and go somewhere. I think some of my projects have forced me to do that, and they’ve actually grown and become something bigger. In terms of my academic interests and my interest in planning, I’m really enjoying the event planning that I’m doing. The social aspect of it and being involved with creating a colorful and diverse community has been really inspiring.
Photo: Sylvia Feghali, right, with her undergraduate intern cohort.