Patricia Dawson

Growing up, incoming Ph.D. student Patricia Dawson took a deep interest in her Cherokee history as she heard inspiring stories about influential family members of the past and present.

One relative in particular, Rachel Caroline Eaton, ignited Dawson’s passion for revealing stories from the past. Eaton, Dawson’s great-great-great-aunt, is believed to be the first Cherokee woman to earn a doctoral degree. Eaton earned the degree from the University of Chicago in 1921 in history.

“There are still so many stories out there left to tell,” Dawson kept thinking after she read Eaton’s dissertation, “John Ross and the Cherokee Indians,” which told many Cherokee stories, particularly about the Trail of Tears.

“Why not try to dig into the past and tell a few more like she did?” said Dawson.

That’s what Dawson will be doing this fall at Carolina. Dawson studies how Cherokees used clothing leading up to the Indian Removal Act to push against stereotypes and present themselves as civilized people to European-Americans.

“Cherokee clothing was and still is a very powerful weapon,” she said.

A major factor in Dawson’s decision to attend Carolina was the mentorship faculty members provide. Dawson said that when she visited Chapel Hill to interview for the doctoral program, she was blown away by faculty members’ willingness to listen to her and talk about her research instead of their own.

“A lot of the time, professors are either really good at research or really good at working with students,” Dawson said. “They’re not really great at both.”

But at Carolina, she said, they are.

Kathleen DuVal, Bowman and Gordon Gray Distinguished Term Professor in the history department, will serve as Dawson’s faculty advisor. Mentoring and research are equally important skills, she said, but balancing those skills can often be difficult for faculty members.

“When we get it right — when our own research is richer because we are also teaching and professionalizing young scholars — it is exactly what we are here to do,” DuVal said.

In addition to focusing on her research interests with experts like DuVal, another big draw to the University for Dawson was the chance to broaden her knowledge through interdisciplinary studies.

“In so many universities, graduate students are isolated into separate departments,” Dawson said. “But I really believe cross-disciplinary conversation and collaboration can help students and scholars in every discipline.”

At Carolina, Dawson was selected to be a part of the The Graduate School’s Royster Society of Fellows, which provides financial funding and opportunities in interdisciplinary learning, teaching, networking and professional development.

The funding from the fellowship was an important factor in Dawson’s decision to come to Carolina. More exciting, Dawson said, was the fellowship’s potential to “help me expand my field of vision.”

Finally, there was something special about Chapel Hill that made it seem like the right fit. Although she hadn’t been here before she interviewed, there was a certain level of familiarity for Dawson, who grew up in neighboring Tennessee.

“It felt a bit like home.”

Story by Will Rimer and photo by Jon Gardiner, University Communications

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