‘It’s like breaking a code’
Provost’s Award winner Calista Donohoe on unlocking the past, the power of language and navigating tumultuous times
Politics. Covid. Climate change. Amidst today’s seemingly never-ending tumultuous backdrop of conflict, Calista Donohoe keeps a cool head. After all, history is filled with chaotic times.
“When there’s chaos, people feel scared and lash out – that’s a natural response to tragedy, political turmoil or any sort of chaotic circumstances,” said Donohoe, the winner of the fall 2021 Provost’s Award at Metropolitan State University of Denver. “But you can trace those lines of history to see how it resolves and where you find peace again.”
Donohoe bases this on her understanding of documentation and its surrounding context. As a fall English and Linguistics graduate, she credited her studies for contributing to a research-driven critical approach to information that brings the history behind words to life.
She specifically noted a class on Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton taught by Wendolyn Weber, Ph.D., for enhancing her understanding about then-current events and the political setting that framed historical canon.
“The way we’ve evolved societally is reflected by language,” Donohoe said. “There’s a really interesting undercurrent there – our context enriches our current circumstances.”
Beyond “Beowulf,” her course on Old English has helped her take a barely recognizable form of communication and chart its course as it has morphed into the tools of expression we use today. Donohoe’s final project for the class is a look at the Exeter Book, the largest existing collection of Old English poetry, examining the research and cross-references to get the fullest possible picture of story and storyteller.
“It’s a reflection of the people writing that allows us to glean something about the time period and the works themselves,” she said. “It’s like breaking a code.”
Donohoe’s zigzaggy path has evolved like the language she studies, her narrative path also coming retrospectively into focus. From a small Wisconsin town, she moved to Hawaii with minimal belongings for a fresh start when an initial college venture didn’t go as planned. She was hired on as a baker by a local café and was soon steering the sourdough starter (a quick study after “never having made anything that didn’t come out of a box”), along with adopting cats Helen and Pippa along the way.
Even in paradise, however, a life focused solely on making that bread eventually grew stale for Donohoe. With Mile High aspirations, she moved again, this time to Denver, picking up work at vegan Capitol Hill bakery Make Believe.
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It was at this point, just as the pandemic was taking hold and the chaos setting in, that she saw an opportunity: She could study English at MSU Denver, focusing her passion for creative understanding to help finish the educational journey she had begun years before. Donohoe described the online environment as an unexpected boon to help allay some of the depression and anxiety that had previously made it difficult for her to focus.
“It’s been interesting to build this sense of community but in a different sort of way,” she said. “You see your classmates’ lives play out digitally on their posts – their work, parenting and the like.
“It’s kind of cool because you feel part of something nontraditional together.”
Donohoe, who now lives in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, is planning on graduate work in museum studies, describing the archival institutions as “visual representations of history, captured in time.”
Though the exact nature of how her story will play out is unknown, she is excited by the iteration to come, working at another vegan bakery, Brooklyn Whiskers, with Helen and Pippa in tow.
Having a solid foundation helps normalize the volatility. As a longtime vegetarian-turned-vegan and animal advocate, Donohoe has taken to heart one of the Bard’s famous lines from “Hamlet”: To thine own self be true.
“I think it’s important to scaffold the things you care about and interrogate what you believe,” Donohoe said.” “That gives you direction for whatever tomorrow brings.”