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matt sellers (’12) english; marshall scholar

joyellen freeman

Honors Program student and Foundation Fellow Matthew Sellers recalls his first time at Oxford University, where he encountered a demanding academic environment as a freshman.

“It’s one of the most intellectually stimulating places I’ve ever been,” he said. “It fosters not just critical thinking but independence that you don’t get in a classroom elsewhere. It made me a better researcher and writer and motivated me in new ways.”

Now he will return as a 2012 Marshall Scholar to pursue graduate studies in the United Kingdom. He is the fifth UGA student to earn the award in the past decade.

“I’m looking forward to that same environment where everyone is engaged with work and where you have the opportunity to really dig into some heavy scholarship,” he said. “It’s also an international university that attracts students from around the globe, and I’m looking forward to meeting and interacting with all these people from different cultures.”

After graduating from UGA in May with a bachelor’s degree in English and a minor in history, Matt will pursue a master of studies program in modern literature followed by a doctor of philosophy program in English language and literature.

At Oxford, he will unite the two sides of himself – the one that enjoys literary analysis and the other that digs into applied policy. Envisioning a future as a professor, he hopes to take scholarly pursuit and make it accessible to others, sharing literature with his community in a way that helps members identify with themselves.

“I’ve attended a public land-grant university, where the work I’m doing should inform the constituents of UGA and Georgia as a whole. This motto ‘to serve’ is a mindset that I’m carrying with me to Oxford,” Matt said. “The work I’m doing is not solely theoretical or esoteric amongst the academy. It just as much needs to be a dialogue about literature, art, and culture that takes place on all levels, from the kitchen table to the seminar table, because the works I’m reading are important for everyone to dig into and understand.”

Matt’s grasp on policy is apparent through his various internships with National Association of Counties in Washington, DC through the Honors in Washington program; Organizing for America in Athens, GA; the U.S. Department of Education and the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools in Washington, DC; the University of Georgia Press; and the Carl Vinson Institute of Government in Athens, GA.

Matt has served in several leadership roles with UGA’s chapter of the Roosevelt Institute, a national student-run think tank, and with UGA’s Journal for Undergraduate Research Opportunities, an online publication encompassing all disciplines.

“Fusing the study of English literature with policy, politics, and curriculum development, I’ve integrated my passion for words with various academic and professional areas of study,” Matt said. “Whoever said English isn’t a relevant course of study apparently didn’t understand the achievement gap – a gap which I hope to close by developing culturally relevant curricula.”

Matt knew that he wanted to study literature after completing a research project as a 2009 summer fellow with the Center for Undergraduate Research Opportunities. Matt focused on the poetry of Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Penn Warren under the guidance of English professor Hugh Ruppersburg, who serves as interim dean of UGA’s Franklin College of Arts and Sciences. In his thesis, Matt explored how Warren depicts populism and populist leaders in fiction and compared those representations to current grassroots political movements.

“I plan to build on this research at Oxford, interrogating how literature … explores the changing experience of individuality in a globalized world while asserting the importance of selfhood – a celebration of difference rather than of divisiveness,” Matt wrote in his Marshall application.

Matt traveled to India and the United Kingdom through the Foundation Fellowship and has also been to France and Italy as a member of the UGA Chamber Choir in the Hodgson School of Music. Last year, he taught English and mathematics in a primary school in Tanzania, where he embraced his plans to move forward as a professor.

“On the edge of my recently expanded world, I realized the vital importance of a shared story as a way of communicating experience across cultural and political boundaries. I received a call to action from the improbable confluence of poetry and my students' stories: to celebrate the diversity of human experience by leveraging the power of the narrative.”

In a literary sense, this “call to action” describes the moment when main characters discover purpose. For Matt, the call beckons him to Oxford to study postcolonial literature.

“Until Africa, I never realized how powerfully emotive the call can be,” Matt said. “There’s a grand arc of human history, but along the way, there are so many narrative threads that flow into that arc. It’s important for scholars to weave them together to give a broader understanding of what it means to be human.”

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