2011 Pulaski Academy Alumni
Undergraduate Degree form Rhodes College
Masters Degree from the Courtauld Institute of Art in London
Currently Completing her PhD. at the University of Pennsylvania
Welcome to Innovation in Education. My name is Matt Pulley and I'm your host for this episode. I’m so excited about our guest today – Robyn Barrow is a 2011 Pulaski Academy graduate. She completed her undergraduate work at Rhodes College, majoring in Art History, then studied at the world-renowned Courtauld Institute of Art in London and is now working on her PhD at the University of Pennsylvania.
Robin, welcome! So glad you're with us.
Robyn: Thank you. I'm happy to be here. Happy to be back at PA.
Matt: Tell our listeners where you’ve been? What's life been like since graduating PA?
Robyn: So I live in Philadelphia. I was home for a period during the pandemic and then I went back to Philly. Now I'm here for the summer and in just a few days, I'm moving to Iceland. So I'm going to be living in Reykjavik on a Fulbright Fellowship for the next year.
Matt: Tell us a little about your early life. Did you grow up in Little Rock? When did you start PA? What was life like growing up in Little Rock?
"Yes, my first grade PA teacher was very patient and very attentive to what I needed to become strong reader."
Robyn: So I am from Little Rock. I lived in Hillsboro and always have. I'm within walking distance of PA. I came to PA in 1998 and had an admissions tour with my mom when I was five years old. I was at PA for 13 years until I graduated in 2011. So I was a “forever clubber” at PA.
Matt: Did you have any say in the decision to come to PA?
Robyn: It was all my say. My mom, she looked over at me and said, “Well, what do you think?” I was like, “This is it.” I always was a decisive kid and I knew this was where I needed to be.
Matt: Do you have siblings or are you an only child?
Robyn: I'm an only child. We vacationed a lot. We were a houseboat family, so we had a houseboat out at Lake Ouachita. I was really close to my grandmother - I would spend time with her. I played guitar. I was in choir here at PA, so I’ve always been kind of a musical kid. I love creative writing, so I would write a lot. I was never a sports person. I was never on a club team or played sports at PA.
Matt: Which is great! I think unfortunately, the media covers a lot of sports in schools in Arkansas and misses some of the other great things students are doing. The Performing Arts at PA is phenomenal and it doesn't get enough recognition.
What are some of your earliest memories of being at PA?
Robyn: I remember teachers all the way through. I was always really close to them. I was a little slow to learn to read. In first grade, I was slow as a reader. I didn't really start reading very confidently until probably the spring of my first grade year at PA. And then by second grade, I was reading “The Hobbit”. I was reading on a fifth-grade reading level by second grade. Our teachers at PA always allowed that, you know, we always had the space to be where we were on a reading level and academically.
(Robyn pictured far right).
So, very quickly, I became a very advanced reader. I wasn't good at Math. But I feel like I always had the space to lean into my interests and I spent a lot of time in the lower school library.
I had close friends, pretty early, you know. Good friends in my neighborhood.
Matt: That's amazing! From first to second grade, you went from not reading to reading The Hobbit. You could probably attribute that to your first grade teacher?
Robyn: Yes, my first grade PA teacher was very patient and very attentive to what I needed to become a strong reader.
"That didn't end up being the direction I went academically, but that remains the longest piece of academic writing I've ever written." (PA's Honors Senior Thesis Class).
I'm someone who acquires skills a bit slowly. But once the skill is there, I just take off. So, other kids probably were reading a lot faster, but when you have such a small class size, you have that space to really go for it and learn at your own pace.
Matt: I think that's one of the great things about PA - even when you were here and now today, is the small class sizes and the ability and opportunity for teachers to personalize or tailor the curriculum or teaching to each student’s needs. Whether it be reading or math skills, teachers can meet the needs of each student. Students move at their pace, but at the same time, teachers are always pushing and challenging you to go farther. They are always raising the bar and the expectation. That’s a BIG part of what we do at PA.
Outside of the classroom, what were you involved with at PA?
Robyn: I was on the Honor Council in Middle School. President of the Middle School Student Council. The Pulaski Academy Honor Code was something that really mattered to me. I was really devoted to academic integrity and, at Rhodes College, they also have an Honor Code. I was very comfortable about that at Rhodes. I liked that we were honest and upfront about not cheating. And we do to others as we would want them to do us.
(Robyn fourth from left)
I was in one of the school musicals - Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat in 2010. I was in the band. I played the flute in the band for a year or two. My senior year, I was on the homecoming court. I wasn’t into athletics, but I always felt like there was a place for me here at PA. My senior year, I was one of the nine National Merit Finalists in that class. That was an historic year for PA. 10% of our class were National Merit Finalists.
Matt: That was a great year for the percentage of National Merit Finalists that we had, which I know lot of families don’t consider when looking for schools for their children.
Robyn: One of my dearest friends at Rhodes went to Central High School here in Little Rock and they had 15 National Merit finalists. But they had so many more students than us. There were only 80 of us in our class.
Robyn: I was definitely more of an English and Humanities student. I wish I had invested more in Math and Science, but I was always a reader and a Humanities person. As I said, I loved reading, I loved history and so I was always was in the social science classes, the English classes. I doubled up in AP Lit my senior year and so that was always where my passion was.
It was all my say. My mom, she looked over at me and said, “Well, what do you think?” I was like, “This is it.” I always was a decisive kid and I knew this was where I needed to be.
Matt: As you think through your experiences at PA, was there a class or teacher or a project that you really felt stretched and challenged you as a student and a person?
Robyn: I felt in the social sciences classes in upper school, you're continually challenged to write and research on a college level. The teacher who meant the most to me while in Upper School was Chad Cumming, who we lost a few years ago. I did the Peace Essay with him. We were doing 12-13 page papers in his classes. Mr. Cumming’s class got me ready to do Mr. Topich’s Senior Thesis class, where I did a 90 page Senior Thesis. My topic was about the collective unconscious and Jungian archetypes in literature. I thought I was going to be an English major. So I was excited about and thinking a lot about the hero's journey in literature - the kind of continual myth that runs through stories like The Odyssey and Harry Potter. That didn't end up being the direction I went academically, but that remains the longest piece of academic writing I've ever written (PA’s Senior Thesis class).
Matt: I love the PA Senior Thesis class and the opportunity for students to select a research topic they’re interested in or maybe something they do not know a lot about. There is a lot of opportunity there to explore areas in research that students want to.
If you would like to hear Robyn’s interview in its entirety, you can access it on the PA Podcast, Innovation In Education at papodcast.net.
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