Curiouser and Curiouser!

My sense of wonder stemmed from all the time that I spent in museums and libraries as a child. I just want to try to share that so that others may be able to view learning with that same excitement.
Joani Etskovitz
Currently studying at the University of Oxford on a Marshall Scholarship.

Book in hand, Joani Etskovitz turns the page on the next chapter of her life.

By Mary Cate Connors

Joani Etskovitz ’17 was devouring books before she could even read them – literally.

“There are plenty of pictures of me gnawing on my first board books, so I guess my love of reading started there,” Etskovitz says. When she was old enough to read, her parents would take her to the public library in Wayne, Pennsylvania, and would watch as she pulled books off the shelf and tore through them at breakneck pace.

Each book led to another, and Etskovitz’s appetite for learning never seemed to slow. In fact, it was her love for reading that sparked an insatiable curiosity, one that led her to study at Princeton and now at the University of Oxford on a Marshall Scholarship.

As a first year student at Princeton, Etskovitz had several academic paths in mind. Her passion for the humanities, however, drew her to the English department. During her first semester, she studied literature, took a foundational course in Princeton’s unique Humanities Sequence and spent time reading in the Firestone Library.

Nose always buried in a book, Etskovitz had not taken notice of the curious space on the first floor of the library until one fortuitous day in her first year, when the sound of children’s laughter led her down the rabbit hole to the Cotsen Children’s Library.

“I met with Dana Sheridan, the library’s outreach director, told her my life story and explained how desperately I wanted to volunteer in her library,” Etskovitz says. “She didn’t let me leave until I had a job lined up.”

At Cotsen, Etskovitz researched rare children’s books and helped plan free education programs for children designed to encourage creativity and promote literacy. It was her first glimpse into the importance of public humanities outreach. “At Cotsen, I discovered that you can take materials that foster deep academic research and use them to inspire programs that in turn spark wonder in wide audiences of all ages,” she says.

Etskovitz’s hard work and enthusiasm at Cotsen landed her a prominent internship at the Library of Congress in the Young Readers Center (YRC), where – quite serendipitously – they were in the midst of planning a 150th anniversary celebration of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” one of her absolute favorite stories.

“‘Alice’s Adventures’ is one of the most important published texts in the 19th century,” Etskovitz says. “It isn’t so much about plot, but a story about adventure, exploration and imagination, meant to plunge readers into a different world.”

She spent a month devising programs for every age group, from infants to the elderly. She planned an Alice-themed storytime and contributed to the design of an exhibition on the cultural aftermath of the novel. Etskovitz also helped YRC Director Karen Jaffe plan a reading of A Mad Tea Party, a chapter from the book, for underserved children in the Washington D.C. area.

Reconnecting with “Alice’s Adventures” inspired Etskovitz academically as well. Her prize-winning senior thesis, as well as both of her junior papers, explored the topics of curiosity and literary imagination through the lens of “Alice’s Adventures” and other important 19th century texts like Charlotte Brontë’s “Villette.”

Research for these papers, coupled with a curiosity of her own, took Etskovitz overseas for the first time. She made the most of her four years at Princeton, traveling on various University-supported programs to Germany, France, Greece, the Czech Republic and the United Kingdom.

“I’d never been out of the country or even on a plane for more than a few hours,” Etskovitz says. “I couldn’t have possibly imagined when I walked into Princeton that I would have all of these opportunities to explore and the funding to match.”

Etskovitz’s adventures continue this fall as a recipient of the prestigious Marshall Scholarship. The award covers the cost of up to two years of graduate study and living at a British university of the recipient’s choice. She is currently pursuing a Master of Studies in English Literature at the University of Oxford, where she is focusing on 19th century British literature and the intersections between children’s and women’s literature. That knowledge will serve as a springboard for her next degree; she plans to pursue a Master of Studies in English Literature at King’s College London and focus on British literature between 1850 and present day.

As a Marshall Scholar, Etskovitz will have the chance to chase her dream of becoming a college professor and leader of private libraries’ public engagement. “It is my lifelong professional ambition to inspire underserved students’ curiosity about literature and thereby foster literacy,” she explains.

To start, Etskovitz will build on her previous experience in the Firestone Library and the Library of Congress while working at the Bodleian Library, Oxford’s primary research library and one of the oldest in Europe. There, she hopes to help jumpstart outreach efforts by creating programming for underfunded elementary school classrooms and curating exhibitions geared toward advancing literacy in children and adults.

Ultimately, Etskovitz aspires to ignite in others the same spark and passion that she has for learning.

PHOTOGRAPHER: Ben Weldon. Photograph at Longwood Gardens, Kennett Square PA