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Kimberly St. Julian-Vernon in front of blue lockers

A Life Of The Mind

Lessons from her past inspire her teaching

Earlier this year, the teacher one classroom over called out to Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon ’12: “Hey, will you come talk to this kid?”

The student wanted to drop out because he was making $25 per hour and his family needed every bit of it.

“I get that,” she told him, “but when you’re 25 with no diploma, things will look different. If you finish, you can get a small-business loan, maybe start your own company.”

After mulling it over, he decided to enroll in night school.

“That child no longer has to decide between a future and a paycheck,” says St. Julian-Varnon, a scholar of Slavic studies with a bachelor’s from Swarthmore and a master’s from Harvard who returned to her high school alma mater in Dayton, Texas—population 7,734—to teach history.

Then there’s the dyslexic boy whose parents told him he’d be lucky to work at McDonald’s, for whom St. Julian-Varnon built a college plan and found scholarships. And the AP student with the photographic memory who was going to settle for a job at the plant but, after St. Julian-Varnon’s encouragement, applied and was accepted to Texas A&M for mechanical engineering. And the Latino kids who came up to St. Julian-Varnon the day after the 2016 presidential election, one with puffy eyes, afraid they would be deported.

“Episodes like that,” she says, “are why I do this.”

She knows these kids because she was that kid. Literally. St. Julian-Varnon sees students sitting in the same desks she did, reading from the same books, and, just as she once did, struggling to fill in the blanks of their future.

She will eventually return to the academy for her Ph.D. But not, as she once aspired, to write the most acclaimed books in her field. Now, she wants to educate lower-income communities to enrich and empower them.

“I’m living the life of the mind, learning every day,” she says. “But if I’m not teaching other people how to do it, not living in service of others, I’ve not only betrayed myself, I feel like I’ve let down my Swarthmore community. And I’ve worked entirely too hard for that.”

‘This Magical Place’

St. Julian-Varnon grew up outside Houston on a cattle farm in Dayton. Her mother and father, a freight handler and a mechanic, went to segregated schools. No one from her immediate family graduated from college. All that St. Julian-Varnon’s parents wanted was for her to finish high school and find a good job.

She knew early on she was one of the smartest kids in town. But what was that worth, really? From kindergarten through high school, she never saw more than one other person of color in her advanced courses, and almost all her teachers were white.

Then there were the put-downs: “Kim, you’re not black, you speak proper English,” and, on the flip side, “You’re black and smart and a woman: You’ll get in anywhere.”

St. Julian-Varnon eventually found her niche, joining the marching band and falling for a boy who would later become her husband. (He’s an actual rocket scientist; “space voodoo, far as I’m concerned,” she laughs.) But even on her way to class salutatorian, she couldn’t quite envision a life beyond Dayton.

Then she saw a postcard for the Discover Swarthmore program: “Visit this magical place outside of Philadelphia,” St. Julian-Varnon remembers. Although it was her first time leaving Texas, she felt surrounded by like minds. Sitting in on a Russian fairy-tales class with Professor Sibelan Forrester, she thought, Yep.

Buoyed by her first campus visit, St. Julian-Varnon decided to apply to Swarthmore. And then she researched what it would take to get in. Her heart sank. When her decision letter arrived in a thin envelope, she tossed it in the garbage. Her mom made her fish it out.

And in one moment, the world opened.

“I just remember running around the house screaming,” she says.

St. Julian-Varnon’s parents encouraged her dream, but it wasn’t until she packed her boxes and headed to the airport that her father fully realized what this all meant.

“He couldn’t understand why I needed so much stuff. I was like, ‘Daddy, I’m going to Philadelphia. Like, I’m moving there today,’” she laughs. “And he was mortified. But it was just like, ‘It’s OK, I love you. See you in December.’”

Standing Out

I like these people, but I’m totally gonna flunk out, St. Julian-Varnon recalls thinking in her first week at Swarthmore. “I was terrified. I had never been around academics before.”

At orientation, her first assignment came from Professor Robert Weinberg: Read a 300-page history book in a few days. “I’m like, dude, what?” St. Julian-Varnon says. “The whole thing?” She met students from Exeter and didn’t know where or what that was.

“I didn’t talk in my first two freshman seminars out of fear someone would ask how I got here,” she says.

But you can’t hide for long at Swarthmore. Weinberg and other professors pushed her to speak. They sat with her for office hours, sometimes with St. Julian-Varnon in tears, going over the finer points of academic writing. Slowly, her confidence grew.

“Without teachers and professors like that,” she says, “I’m not a success.”

But there were other adjustments: namely, living in the Northeast. St. Julian-Varnon became known as The Texan: the girl with the drawl, the one in the winter coat in September, the one who had regularly watched her father deliver calves.

“I stood out,” she says.

But from minute one, St. Julian-Varnon relished the Swarthmore ethos. She delighted in the opportunity, finally, to interact with scholars of color, and threw herself into activities ranging from Peaslee Debate Society to rugby.

She excelled in the classroom, majoring in history. She also earned a Davis Projects for Peace grant with Joshua Cockroft ’12, assisted with building more than 100 latrines for people suffering from cholera, and helped establish a local scholarship in Madagascar.

After spending her junior year at Oxford, St. Julian-Varnon came back to Swarthmore—and into her own.

But even with these successes, she faced obstacles. Reminders of her otherness.

When St. Julian-Varnon prepared to fly to Ukraine for a research trip, her mother read about racial attacks there and begged her to stay home. But after a pep talk from Weinberg, she boarded the plane.

“And yeah, I ran into some skinheads, and it was terrifying,” she says. “But that’s how I knew I needed to do it.”

Being on the Ground

St. Julian-Varnon went on to earn a master’s from Harvard in Russian, Eastern European, and Central Asian studies. A Ph.D. program and tenure-track position beckoned, but she felt pulled in another direction.

She wanted to clear her head, and also to be on the ground, sharing her passion for history with the type of student she had been.

So, four years ago, she returned to Dayton to teach seventh- to 12th-grade history. Some things had changed; with a weaker local economy, students had more anxiety and responsibility. But most had not; there remained that milieu of I’m from Dayton, don’t expect much from me.

“It’s my job to change that line of thinking,” she says.

St. Julian-Varnon teaches students whose parents are in prison, or going through rehab. At her other job, teaching history at Lee College in nearby Baytown, she has students who bring toddlers to class as well as students in their 60s. But her message doesn’t waver.

“These doubts you might have, these negative things you might be hearing from others, well, I thought and heard the same things,” she says. “But you can transcend them.”

St. Julian-Varnon runs a laid-back classroom, but she doesn’t take excuses—especially from her advanced high schoolers, most of whom are used to coasting to A’s.

“Then they get to me and they’re getting pushed and they want to quit,” she says. “But I won’t have it. They have to put their all into it with me.”

Almost every day, a student asks St. Julian-Varnon why she came back to Dayton. At first, she wasn’t sure how to respond.

“Well, I think you deserve a good education,” she says. “Why don’t you think you deserve a good teacher?”

On good days, her students are locked in, making connections between lessons and subjects. They’re calling each other out for not backing arguments with evidence.

“You can actually see the learning happening,” St. Julian-Varnon says. “The brains firing off.”

And every once in a while, she gets to see the impact she’s making on someone’s future.

She returned to Swarthmore in the fall as one of the Aydelotte Foundation’s inaugural Frank 5 Fellows and shared stories from the classroom. Among them, the boy with the lucrative job who decided to stay for the diploma.

A few weeks later, the boy watched a video of the speech in his Dayton classroom. His teacher, Bret Alldredge—the one who had asked St. Julian-Varnon to speak to the young man, and the one she had gone to as a student for guidance—had put it on.

She peeked into the classroom and saw tears in the boy’s eyes.

“Then the bell rang, and he came up to me and just said, ‘Thank you,’” she says. “I told him, ‘You owe me a diploma,’ and he looked up at me and said, ‘You’re gonna get it.’”

The Powerhouse

Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon ’12 grew fascinated with Russia at 13, once she saw The History Channel’s Russia: Land of the Tsars miniseries. Russian became her academic focus at Swarthmore, after she took a first-year seminar on Lenin and Stalin with Isaac H. Clothier Professor of History and International Relations Robert Weinberg and roomed with Jacqueline Bailey-Ross ’12, another African-American student with Slavic proclivities.

“It’s all their fault,” she jokes.

Fast friends, St. Julian-Varnon and Bailey-Ross studied Russian, among several languages. As seniors, they encountered an African-American freshman in a Russian class. “Oh yeah, you’re with us,” St. Julian-Varnon told her.

When the Swatties attended a Slavic conference in Washington, D.C., it shook the room. “How are there three of you?” St. Julian-Varnon was asked.

“We just shrugged,” she says. “‘Swarthmore never told us we couldn’t.”

(They paved the way: Two African-American women and a third student of color took second-year Russian this fall. “That’s what’s cool about Swat,” says St. Julian-Varnon. “It’s become this sort-of Russian minority powerhouse.”)

At Harvard, St. Julian-Varnon was the only person of color in her program, and at conferences she’s usually one of two or three. At one Slavic conference, she was mistaken for a janitor and asked to clean up a spill. “Then I put my Harvard badge on,” she says, grinning.

Again and again, though, she’s asked why. You’re black. Why do you study Russia? Why do you care? Why not American history? In the classroom she sidesteps these questions by relating subjects like Stalin to the students’ lives.

History is never boring, she says: “Y’all watch HBO, right? You want sex, scandals, and politics? The Bolsheviks have all of it.”

Today, St. Julian-Varnon speaks Russian, French, and German, and she has worked or studied in Ukraine, Bulgaria, and Serbia. She is a respected scholar—no qualifiers needed.

But to her students, she’s still “St. Ju Ju” or “St. Communist.” For the latter, she just smirks.

“I’m like, ‘Children, if I were a communist, your grades would be better.’”