Just five months after she graduated from University of California – Santa Cruz with a bachelor’s degree in history, Cynthia Thickpenny received a life-changing phone call. She learned in late November that she had just won a Marshall Scholarship–one of the most prestigious awards that American undergraduates can receive–to study at the University of Glasgow in Scotland. She plans to specialize in Early Medieval Scottish history–particularly the culture of the Picts, a Celtic people she says are one of the most understudied groups of the Middle Ages.
“I pretty much had to pick myself up off the floor when the phone call came from the British Consulate,” recalled Thickpenny. “I am still stunned, and it has not sunk in all the way yet. To study in Scotland is one of my biggest dreams.”
Marshall Scholars can be found among Supreme Court justices, Pulitzer Prize winning authors, university presidents, members of Congress, and other high-profile leaders in a wide variety of fields. Notable awardees have included Stephen Breyer, associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court since 1994; Thomas Friedman, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and columnist for the New York Times; novelist Nicole Krauss, a nominee for the 2010 National Book Award in Fiction; and Mark Whitaker, senior vice president of NBC News and former editor of Newsweek.
Thickpenny is only the second student in the 45-year history of UC Santa Cruz to be honored with a Marshall; the first was way back in 1969. The two-year award covers living expenses, tuition, and research travel expenses that come to about $36,000 per year.
Thickpenny graduated in June with an exceptional record: she received highest honors in history, college honors, Phi Beta Kappa, and the Humanities Division’s Dizikes and HUGRA awards.
“I loved every minute of my undergraduate life, and I don’t think I would be where I am now, had I not come to UC Santa Cruz,” Thickpenny said. “My professors were always very kind and generous with their help–many bent over backwards to enrich their students’ learning experience, in and out of class.”
She noted that a survey course in Medieval Europe by her eventual thesis adviser, history professor Cynthia Polecritti, “made me realize my life path.”
“I had always loved early medieval history and raided my mother’s bookshelves as a child–she is an art history professor–but I did not realize that history could be a career,” said Thickpenny. “My history and Latin professors were all fantastic and very inspiring, and when I teach someday, I want to model myself after them,” she added.
The feeling was mutual among her many professors in UCSC’s History Department–including Polecritti, Buchanan Sharp, Gildas Hamel, Peter Kenez, and Charles Hedrick–who couldn’t say enough about their former student’s outstanding scholarship.
Professor Polecritti noted that Thickpenny “was a delight to work with, the kind of student we still get at UCSC: highly creative, highly self-motivated, a natural scholar who takes great joy in learning. I joked with her during the two-quarter thesis research that I was the one who was taking a course on Early Scotland!”
“Cynthia is a particularly fine writer, with a clear and distinctive voice whenever she writes history or historical fiction,” Polecritti added. “It is very rare to see a young student who has this level of talent in both areas.”
History professor and UC Presidential Chair Charles Hedrick noted that the Marshall award highlights the kind of unique, quality education undergraduates receive at UC Santa Cruz. “I’m delighted to see our best students recognized by these competitive awards–not least because they deserve them,” he said. “But I’m also pleased because such recognition confirms for me that UCSC’s educational ideals remain vigorous and effective.”
As for Thickpenny, she will spend the next six months home in Menlo Park, working and taking language courses in Latin and Old English to prepare for her adventure abroad. “I will go to Scotland next summer; school starts in September,” said Thickpenny. “I have never been there before–it’s my favorite place I’ve never been!”
“I hope to travel around before starting at the University,” she added. “There are so many Pictish hill fortresses and enormous stone sculptures to visit….”