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  4. Elizabeth Blackwell ‘86

Can you describe your experience at St. Stephen’s? What are some of your fondest memories of that time?

St. Stephen’s truly felt like a community to me beyond just being a school. It was more than just a place to learn certain academic subjects; you were encouraged to figure yourself out as a person. There were plenty of eccentric students and faculty, and that was celebrated; you weren’t expected to fit a particular mold. I liked the fact that people came in with all different backgrounds because meeting other students with interesting life experiences was part of the education and, being a small school, you really did get to know people.

My mother was one of the librarians. I remember when she was considering taking the job, I begged her not to. My mom and I got along great, but the idea of my mother being in my school felt so embarrassing to me. She took the job anyway, and I realized it was a bonus to have her there;  I would hit her up for money if people were going for gelato after school, and she gave me the gossip from the faculty meetings. It made the school, even more a part of my family.

Another highlight for me was the theater program. At a larger school, I don't think I ever would have had the nerve to try out for drama performances, but it was truly one of the greatest experiences, and it built my self-confidence. Theater introduced me to a different crew of people, friends who I would not have met otherwise. As you can imagine, anyone who is interested in drama tends to be an interesting, creative person. St. Stephen’s really encourages you to try new things, and for me, drama was a highlight.

Your books have received rave reviews from Publishers Weekly, the Historical Novel Society, Booklist, and People magazine and you have been praised for your ability to seamlessly weave historic events into your stories; when you were a student at St. Stephen’s did you imagine you would one day become a successful author?

Absolutely not; that’s why it’s so funny to look back now. I was always a big reader but being an author sounded so fancy and specialized. I didn’t know anyone who wrote fiction. I thought you had to be a super brilliant, super intellectual, very sophisticated person, you had to know people in publishing in New York, and you had to be really connected. I never put together the idea that here are these books I love to read, and there were real people who wrote them, most of whom were living totally regular lives. It felt to me like a totally separate world, and even in college, I had no idea what career I was going to have. My parents said, “major in the classes you love and, you'll figure it out.” The classes I loved were history classes (which was true at St. Stephen’s as well). [When I graduated] I decided to try publishing. I worked about five years at an academic publisher, doing nit-picky work, editing other people’s writing, and fixing the grammar and it was during that time, in my 20s, that, in the back of my head, I started saying: it would be cool to write a book someday, I wonder if I’ll ever get up the nerve to do that? How do you even do that? And then, in my late 20s, when I was working as a journalist, I went to a friend’s wedding, and I sat next to a woman in her late twenties who I didn't know, and she told me that she had just published a book. [It was a book] about a single girl living in the city. She didn’t look particularly glamorous, she looked like a normal person, and that’s when I said, well, she doesn’t have any better connections than I do, she just did the work of writing the book and if she can do it, maybe I can too. Sometimes that’s all it takes is to meet one other person that makes a profession accessible.

Another thing that pushed me to start writing was that I had my daughter, my first child, and I decided that I wanted only to work part-time. I had more time to myself, and I thought, if I do not at least try this, then I never will, and I will always be angry at myself if I don’t at least attempt to write. There was something about being home with a baby, no offense, but a lot of it was really boring, so when I was with her, and she couldn't talk, I would be thinking of story ideas. Never would I have thought that I would be at my most creative with a baby in the house, but there was something about that change in lifestyle that prompted me to say, now is your moment, go for it, but it took years to get anything published. I did not tell anyone that I wrote fiction until I was close to having a publishing contract in my mid-thirties, so it took a while.

What do you enjoy most about what you do?

The freedom is the best and the worst part. I can choose what I want to write about; if I develop a particular interest in a certain time period, I have the excuse to read all about it, follow where my interest goes, and come up with my own stories, and that’s amazing, I never take that part of it for granted. The downside is, it’s all on me; if I’m not feeling creative, I have to struggle through that too.

You write historical fiction and your books often take place in early 20th century Europe or North America; what initially drew you to the genre of historical fiction and to this period in Western history in particular?

Any time a society changes dramatically in a condensed amount of time is fertile ground for story ideas. I love writing about the 1910s, the 1920s; [for example,]  if you take something as simple as women’s hair and outfits, they went from centuries of long hair tied up to chopped almost overnight, same with skirts--ankles covered for centuries and then, suddenly, “here are my knees!” Now, that’s a superficial example, but you can follow that change throughout society and look at women’s changing roles in public life, changing political ideas, communism, etc. If you’re trying to craft a storyline that requires dramatic events, there is a lot to choose from within that period. Another more practical answer is, publishing is still a business, and anyone who writes fiction acknowledges that and there are limited time periods where books really sell and [there’s also] reader preference; the further you go back in history, the harder it is to get a historical book published because most readers want to read about a world that’s somewhat familiar. There are thousands of books set in WWII, and they keep coming out because there is a huge public interest in that period.

Your most recent book, Red Mistress, about an undercover Soviet agent living in Paris, was published in July. Red Mistress explores the life of Nadia Shulkina, the daughter of former Russian aristocrats who, faced with the Russian Revolution, find herself wrest from a life of comfort and forced into a world of constant uncertainty, a reality she eventually embraces through a convenient marriage, several affairs, and an adventurous career as a spy. What inspired you to tell Nadia’s story?

In all my years studying history--I focused on European history in college--- I had never really studied the Russian Revolution other than in a general survey course in college. I am fascinated by any dramatic change, and it was this gap in my knowledge; my question was, how did it happen? How did Russia go from a fully autocratic [state led by a] czar to Lenin controlling this enormous country within a few months? I didn’t think I would write a book about it because that seemed insane; I didn't know enough about it, [I thought] you had to be a Russian scholar to do that. [At the time,]I was planning a book that had a cast of international characters, and one of my characters was going to be Russian, and I needed a backstory for her. I decided to read some Russian Revolution books, and a book that happened to be at my library was a history of two wealthy Russian families and what had happened to them over the course of the nineteenth century. This book sparked [my interest in] the idea of what happens when you have been raised to a life of privilege, and you lose everything because that’s what happened to these rich families. [I also wondered,] what would make you sympathize with someone who was very privileged and then lost everything? And that became Nadia. People under extraordinary circumstances either crumble or rise to the occasion as best they can, and you never quite know until you’re tested. I liked that idea of someone who had never been tested, someone who is forced to reinvent herself over and over because she had to do what she had to do to survive and, once I decided she would be my book, the other characters fell away. I thought a book set totally in Russia would be too dismal to be perfectly honest, and I wanted there to be some sense of adventure, so I thought, I am in this time period, a lot of Russians immigrated to France, why not take her to Paris? Who wouldn’t want to go to Paris in the 1920s? And that again is the fun part of my job.

So, speaking of reinventing oneself, COVID has pushed all of us indoors. Many of us were not previously accustomed to spending all this time inside, and I keep seeing news stories that say people are reading more. Bloomsbury, the Uk publisher, experienced a 60% increase in profits between February and August, and that’s just one statistic that suggests reading has increased as a result of the pandemic. Have your reading habits changed as a result of the pandemic?

Yes, and I think probably similar to a lot of other people, in the first few months, I found reading really hard, and that astounded me because reading was always my escape; when I was stressed or worried, I would lose myself in a book, but I was not able to do that. Now, I think that’s very normal. I’ve talked to many other people, and there was just this level of constant anxiety and stress that made it hard for my brain to concentrate on anything too long, so, like many people, I was guilty of the phone scroll, constantly checking the news, and when I did read, I went for literary candy: easy read mysteries, I went back to Agatha Christie, I reread some of my favorite books, I read romance novels--which is not what I usually read, but sometimes it hit the mark--and I started reading a lot of non-fiction. I found that reading about a real event made it easier to get into [the story] as opposed to fiction, where I had to imagine all these new characters. I jumped genres a lot, and I would say, six months in, I have gotten back to reading more of an assortment.

What do you consider your greatest achievement (personally or professionally)?

Honestly, getting my first book published... I know that I’m supposed to say, “my children,” but it’s really, really hard to get any book published. I went through so much rejection to get there. I don’t think people realize how much work it takes before the book makes it onto your shelf-- years and years and years. There were dozens of times when I almost gave up, but something would make me keep trying. It doesn’t matter how many books you have published, each new book is its own hurdle; it certainly gets easier, but I am proud of how persistent I was. My younger self would have given up much sooner under rejection, but I kept going, and that was my proudest moment.

Has it been a straight path for you, or do you feel you have been tested along the way to achieving the goals you’ve set for yourself? Can you talk about what some of those challenges have been and how you’ve surmounted them?

It was definitely not a straight path although, now, with enough perspective, I can look back and see that it was a path, it was just a winding path from studying history at St. Stephen’s to studying history in college, taking challenging courses that taught me how to write and I picking up skills along the way even when I did not know what I was going to use them for. So, yes, it was definitely winding in the sense that there were years when I didn’t have that goal in front of me, so I did meander a lot, and that was fine.

What are some of the most important lessons from your professional experience that you would like to share with the next generation of St. Stephen’s graduates?

It’s okay not to know what you want to do, and I know people hate hearing that because when you’re young you want to know how to be successful by doing X, Y and Z, but I know so many people that are in careers that have nothing to do with what they studied in school or have pursued careers that are related in a way that you wouldn’t expect. [I also] know people who’ve gone back to school to study completely different [subjects] from what they studied when they were teenagers so I think it's absolutely fine for your path to wander or to get lost in the woods for a while. Better to try new things than to be stuck in one place.

 

To learn more about Elizabeth and her historical fiction books, visit her website.

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Chapter 1: The World Around Us | A Comment on Our Times, Cortile 2021 Highlights

Revenge of the Fringe

Is internet culture driving America to extremes?

In December of 2020, historians in The Washington Post weighed in on whether 2020 was the worst year ever. Materially, the answer is clear: even in a year of tumult, we live in an era of superabundance. Since the turn of the last century, Americans have added decades to our lifespans, easy-to-source food to our tables, and secured health outcomes that, even in a bad year, remain better than anything our ancestors enjoyed.

By Jen Hollis - Former Teacher of IB History, St. Stephen’s School
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Chapter 1: The World Around Us | Student Perspectives on Social Justice, Cortile 2021 Highlights

Understanding the Origins of BLM and the World’s Outrage Over George Floyd’s Death

"I continue to be surprised at how little Black lives matter... Our lives matter."

- Patrisse Cullors, Founding Member, BLM

By Tatiana Lima '15
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Chapter 1: The World Around Us | Student Perspectives on Social Justice

Opinion: George Floyd’s Killing and the Black Lives Matter Protests Against Police Brutality

On May 25th, 2020, George Floyd was arrested and killed by Minneapolis Police after being accused of stealing from a store. Outrage followed when footage of the arrest revealed one of the officers--Derek Chauvin--placing his knee on Floyd’s neck during the arrest for eight minutes and forty-six seconds and ignoring Floyd’s desperate pleas of “I can’t breathe… I can’t breathe…” 

By Sofia Ghilas '21
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Chapter 1: The World Around Us | Student Perspectives on Social Justice

Opinion: The Rise of Anti-Asian Sentiment

After the recent fatal shooting of six women of Asian descent in Atlanta, Georgia, last month, there is increasing alarm about the proliferation of anti-Asian racist memes, posts, and other online activities that may have set the stage for real-life violence.

By Lixuan Du ‘23
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Chapter 1: The World Around Us | The Pandemic

Bloom Where You Are Planted: How and Why We Persisted During Covid

“They won’t let you board the plane?” I responded on my mobile phone, rubbing sleepy sand out of my eyes. It was 6 AM on a Sunday in February 2020, and half of our school was at the airport – or soon to be -- for Spring Trips, heading out to destinations like Oman and Morocco (the other trips had gotten out the day before).  So began my intimate relationship with the virus. Though we had been tracking the virus for weeks prior, that moment is the moment it all really began for me.  (And, yes, those trip participants literally pulled their bags off the airline conveyor belts, redialed the rental van, and returned, despondent, to their homes in Rome.)

By Eric Mayer - Head of School
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Chapter 1: The World Around Us | The Pandemic

Reopening After a School Closure and Lessons Learned from the Pandemic

Dateline: 25 January, 2020

On January 18th, St. Stephen’s students and teachers returned to the classroom for the first time since late October. At 8 am on Monday, a line of excited students wound its way down Via Aventina, each student waiting their turn for morning temperature checks. All around them, teachers weaved in and out of the line, stopping to greet groups of students and remark on how surreal it felt to be back.

By Vittoria Giusti ‘22, Natalie Edwards '14 - City of Rome I, Core 9 Teacher and Alumni Relations Office
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Chapter 1: The World Around Us | The Pandemic

At War With an Invisible Enemy

The Covid-19 pandemic has been one of the most challenging issues the world has collectively faced in recent history. We are essentially waging war against a silent enemy--one who has no national borders, knows no social bounds, political systems, nor cultural norms or values. This silent enemy of ours has inflicted harm on whoever crosses its path, upending life as we have come to know it, surreptitiously taking lives, decimating industries, and destabilizing the world economy.

By Xara Al Said ‘23
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Chapter 1: The World Around Us | The Pandemic

The Disproportional Impact of Covid on Black Americans

 Last year, as we watched the United States attempt to tackle the Covid-19 virus with mixed messages from the former President, spotty stay-at-home orders, at will mask-wearing, and widespread Covid testing, we observed a great divide between those catching the virus and recovering and those catching the virus and dying.

By Tanesha Alexander - Assistant Librarian, EAP Teacher, and DEI representative
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Chapter 1: The World Around Us | Student Perspectives on Social Media and Bullying

Teens and Bullying

Bullying occurs a lot more than one would expect. Injuries, abuses, humiliations, threats, teachers offended while the class videotapes them, kids kicked, teenagers arrested for serious acts against peers.

By Emma Jansen ‘24
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Chapter 1: The World Around Us | Student Perspectives on Social Media and Bullying

A Social Media Guide for Teens

The use of social media has become an inevitability of modern-day life. Whether you’re following your school’s Facebook account, chatting with your family on Whatsapp, or sending your friends pictures on Instagram.

By Sofia Ghilas '21
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Chapter 1: The World Around Us | Service

In the Spirit of Service

“The best way to not feel hopeless is to get up and do something. Don’t wait for good things to happen to you. If you go out and make some good things happen, you will fill the world with hope; you will fill yourself with hope.”
― Barack Obama

By Dr. Helen Pope - Former Director of The Lyceum, Classics Department Chair and Teacher of Latin, St. Stephen’s School
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Chapter 2: Our Life Online | What Students Are Watching

Film review: Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)

IMDB Rating: 7.6

‘You can kill a revolutionary, but you can never kill the revolution.’ Words from the great activist for black rights, Fred Hampton was the chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party from 1966 to 1969.

By Luca Vanderson '22
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Chapter 2: Our Life Online | What Students Are Watching

Film Review: What We Started

What We Started on Netflix is a beautiful documentary about the history of electronic music that follows its origins from the early 1970s until today. The film explores the genre through interviews with DJs and music producers.

By Matteo Scarfini ‘24
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Chapter 2: Our Life Online | What Students Are Watching

Film Review: Seaspiracy

The newly released Netflix documentary, Seaspiracy, explores the damage the fishing industry is causing the blue planet.

By Gustav Franklin ‘21
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Chapter 2: Our Life Online | What Students Are Watching

Gone with the Wind: A Film Review for Our Times

I saw this film for the first time three years ago, and it is one of those movies that you cannot only watch; you have to think and read and write about it to understand it and its impact on you.

By Benedetta Bosco ‘22
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Chapter 2: Our Life Online | What Students Are Watching

Film Review: The Perks of Being a Wallflower

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a coming-of-age drama film directed by Stephen Chbosky, starring globally known actors Logan Lerman, Emma Watson, and Ezra Miller, and was released in 2012.

By Anita D’Alisera ‘21
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Chapter 2: Our Life Online | What Students Are Watching | Digital St. Stephen's

Our Favorite Online Events

This past year has challenged us to move our events online, from Zoom olive oil and wine tastings that transported us to the Tuscan countryside to gallery openings that brought us to the heart of the New York City and Roman art scene; we have made the best of this pandemic, seizing it as an opportunity to experiment with new mediums and new activities.

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Chapter 3: Creative Writing | Creative Writing

PAndemiNK

As the school's only student-run literary and artistic magazine, INK provides the grounding for your creativity to thrive.

By The INK Team
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Chapter 3: Creative Writing | Creative Writing

A Selection of Creative Writing

You’ve probably seen that meme: a child in a big armchair, cozily reading a book. All around her head are thought bubbles full of knights and dragons, maps and mountains, ships and seas. And below, the caption: “Reading Takes You Places.”

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Chapter 4: Departments | The Lyceum

New Initiatives at the Lyceum Take Off During the Pandemic

"All men by nature desire to know." (Aristotle, Metaphysics 1.980a22).

Nevermore than during the last seventeen months did these words from Aristotle ring true for me. We are so fortunate that through the Lyceum, we are able to create special opportunities for our students to learn about the ancient world, whether it’s through weekend trips and lectures or by inviting scholars, writers, and poets who through their workshops, lectures and readings enhance our classes and broaden our students' horizons.

By Inge Weustink - Director of the Lyceum, Classics Teacher
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Chapter 4: Departments | Exploring City of Rome II Class

Exploring the New City of Rome 2 Class

Between 1400 and 1700, Rome was reborn as a global city, capital of a growing world ‘empire,’ so to speak, for the first time since antiquity. The city today owes much of its historical appeal, its most eye-catching artworks, and monuments, to this, the Early Modern era (c.1400-1700 CE).

By Dr. Rebecca Raynor - Art History, Dr. Paul Treherne - History
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Chapter 5: The Arts

The Arts

This year our students have embraced the digital world, moving their drama and art shows online.

Image: Credit in here mentioning that the art work was selected for the cover

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Chapter 6. Alumni Spotlight | Alumni Spotlight Interview, Cortile 2021 Highlights

Nicola Formichetti ‘96

Fashion Designer / Stylist / Creative Director

By Natalie Edwards '14 - City of Rome I, Core 9 Teacher and Alumni Relations Office
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Chapter 6. Alumni Spotlight | Alumni Spotlight Interview

Margherita Stancati ‘03

The Wall Street Journal reporter

By Natalie Edwards '14 - City of Rome I, Core 9 Teacher and Alumni Relations Office
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Chapter 6. Alumni Spotlight | Alumni Spotlight Interview

Galen Druke ‘08

Host and Producer at FiveThirtyEight.

By Natalie Edwards '14 - City of Rome I, Core 9 Teacher and Alumni Relations Office
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Chapter 6. Alumni Spotlight | Alumni Spotlight Interview

Diva Tommei ‘02

Investment Director Information Technology ICT at ENEA Teach

By Natalie Edwards '14 - City of Rome I, Core 9 Teacher and Alumni Relations Office
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Chapter 6. Alumni Spotlight | Alumni Spotlight Interview

Elizabeth Blackwell ‘86

Author

By Natalie Edwards '14 - City of Rome I, Core 9 Teacher and Alumni Relations Office
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Chapter 6. Alumni Spotlight | Alumni Spotlight Interview

Rachel Sadoff ‘15

MA Candidate in Public Health at Columbia University

By Natalie Edwards '14 - City of Rome I, Core 9 Teacher and Alumni Relations Office
Healthy Campus team
Chapter 6. Alumni Spotlight | Alumni Spotlight

Alumni serve as our Healthy Campus Team

With Italy’s many COVID restrictions, we’ve needed additional staff to greet and temperature check arriving students, walk the campus for compliance, assist classes if the teacher is working remotely but the students are here, and various other activities to keep us safe.  To our great fortune, four alumni came forward to help us for the year: Michael Alonzi (2013), Tatiana Lima (2015), David Rosales (2016), and Alessandro Cosmo (2017). We asked about the experience, and they had this to say…

By Eric Mayer - Head of School
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Chapter 6. Alumni Spotlight | Digital Alumni

Alumni Events Online

From alumni trivia and virtual reunions to happy hours and afternoon coffee breaks, our digital alumni events have enabled us to bring together alumni and current and former faculty members from around the world.