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Tara Zahra '98

honors seminar
Zahra is an assistant professor of history at the University of Chicago, where she teaches modern Central and East European history. Currently, she is working on a book about the history of displacement and the family in 20th-century Europe.
In the spring semester of my senior year, I took Pieter Judson's honors seminar on fascism. Between January and March, I decided to go to graduate school to study Central European history. It was a major leap in the dark to decide to devote my life to studying a place I'd never been and whose language I didn't speak (I'd never been abroad before, except for a weeklong trip to Athens with the Peaslee Debate Society my senior year).

Honors played a huge role in that decision. I'd always loved history, and it seemed like my professors really liked their jobs, but I couldn't imagine caring enough about one subject (even fascism) to become a professor. I also never really imagined myself as an intellectual or a scholar, even after three-and-a-half years at Swarthmore. I was interested in a lot of other things - dancing, journalism, politics, and economics. But history got under my skin through the Honors Program - I spent more and more time on fascism and less on everything else, including sleeping. It was incredibly exciting. I started to think of myself as someone who might be able to contribute something to the field eventually.

The actual exams are the least important part of honors, but it is impossible to be convinced of that when you are spending your last weeks of college cramming two years worth of material into your brain. I remember thinking I would probably never be smarter than the day the written exams began. I studied for the exams by making little history note cards. I used those same cards to study for my orals in graduate school five years later.

Honors was also a good social experience. We had fabulous themed seminar breaks (like boiled turnips, the week we studied World War I), and I became good friends with the other honors students. When the exams ended, I went out to decompress with my friend Emily Willits '98, who was also an honors history major. We tried to read some trashy magazines to unwind but couldn't even do that - it hurt too much to look at words. Then there was a party on Parrish Beach, and Charlie Mayer '98, who was a firefighter, brought a big red fire truck up in front of Parrish; I rode around in the fire truck, which seemed like a good ending to it all.

But it didn't really end there. After graduation, I studied German in Vienna for the summer, living with John Kosinski '99, another student from the fascism seminar who was Pieter Judson's research assistant. My honors examiner, Bill Bowman from Gettysburg College, happened to be in Vienna, doing research of his own and gave us a tour of the city and took us out for ice cream. I did a little bit of research for Pieter that summer, reading these crazy nationalist journals from the turn of the century, and actually used some of that material in my dissertation and book.

I feel incredibly honored to come back to Swarthmore as an honors examiner, especially as the fascism examiner! I have been waiting to be the honors examiner since I started graduate school. It's a wonderful feeling to come back to Swarthmore as the colleague of your former professors and to talk to students who could become your own future colleagues. I am excited to meet the students and to hear their ideas about fascism!