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Tara Gildea

College: Macaulay Honors College | Queens College
Awards: Beinecke Scholarship, 2012

Finding Her Literary Voice

Her task was simple - researching reviews of Amy Lowell's poetry from the 1910s and 1920s for a professor - but the payoff was immense: Tara Gildea found a literary calling of her own, one that will propel her from Macaulay Honors College at Queens College (2013) into a doctoral program in English literature.

Her ticket is a rare Beinecke Scholarship, one of only 20 awarded across the country in 2012 to help pay for graduate studies in the arts, humanities and social sciences. The grant pays for $4,000 immediately before entering graduate school and $30,000 while pursuing advanced studies. This is CUNY's 10th Beinecke since 1993 and its first since 2004.

Gildea intends to apply to the master of arts program at Oxford University, where she deepened her study of female writers last summer thanks to Macaulay's Opportunities Fund, which gives each student a $7,500 grant for study abroad, unpaid internships and the like. At Oxford, she thrived on the tutorial system, which encouraged her to develop her own vision.

Gildea is the first in her family to go to college. "My dad was born in Ireland and came here in the '70s, and education was a big part of my upbringing," she says.

A resident of Jackson Heights, she graduated from Archbishop Molloy High School in 2009 and was drawn to CUNY because "I'd always heard great things about Queens College and wanted to get into Macaulay because of the personal attention you receive."

As a sophomore, she was chosen as a JFEW Scholar, an honor sponsored for academically strong Macaulay students by the Jewish Foundation for Education of Women; the organization covers the college's opportunities fund for recipients (used for travel and scholarly activities) and provides professional development via workshops, guest speakers and other activities.

Through Macaulay, she found a research assistantship after her freshman year with Baruch journalism professor Carl Rollyson, who has published more than 40 books, including an eclectic array of biographies ranging from Susan Sontag to Marilyn Monroe. He asked her to help delve into Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Amy Lowell (1874-1925), who went toe to toe with Ezra Pound for leadership of the Imagist poetry movement - and lost.

From microfilm and journal articles, Gildea collected a trove of reviews that praised Lowell's poetry while slighting her because of her gender. The critics, she found, did Lowell a great injustice by giving more weight to male contemporaries, particularly Pound. Gildea says she kept digging to give her professor the ammunition needed to restore Lowell "to her proper place as a leader of modern poets."

The next summer, Rollyson asked her to research poet Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) and found that critics and biographers had done a similar job on her. Mental illness and a turbulent personal life are far juicier to write about than a close reading of her verse. Although life and craft cannot be wholly separated, Gildea argues, not letting Plath's poetry speak for itself diminishes her as a poet and an influence.

At Oxford last summer, Gildea plunged into a different century and a different medium, Jane Austen's "Emma" (1815), which she found "utterly subversive" in its critique of marriage. Emma, the central character, is perhaps the spunkiest of Austen's heroines, but Gildea says she's never able to fully develop "her own story" because of the marriage-plot convention, which sends her into marriage with Mr. Knightly. "Society's pressure to marry undermines Emma's independent will," she says.

"I love research," Gildea says. "I haven't picked my field, but I'm interested in British literature, in women writers and in the portrayal of women in literature, as well."

Her eventual goal is to become a literature professor - and to keep doing research. She wants to seek out marginalized writers like Lowell, to help ensure that their work - to use a phrase from Lowell's acid-etched account of her failed assault on Pound, "The Dinner-Party" - would not be "wasted/In a foolish cause."