May 25, 2011 — A silhouette of the great German scholar Alexander von Humboldt adorns Monticello's South Square Room, a testament to the mutual admiration felt by Thomas Jefferson and Humboldt.
Painter and naturalist Charles Willson Peale presented the piece to Jefferson when he brought Humboldt to Washington to meet the president in 1804. The meeting was at the urging of the Prussian, who had just completed a groundbreaking exploration of Latin America.
Peale, who recorded the details of the visit in his diary, wrote that Jefferson was truly excited at the prospect of meeting Humboldt. "The countries you have visited are those least known, and most interesting, and a lively desire will be felt generally to receive the information you will be able to give," he quoted Jefferson as saying. "No one will feel it more strongly than myself, because no one person views this new world with more partial hopes of it's exhibiting an ameliorated state of the human condition."
Today, Jefferson's University of Virginia is taking another step to further its rich relationship with Berlin's Humboldt University, which was founded in 1810 by Alexander's older brother, Wilhelm. The University has bestowed its first two Humboldt Fellowships, designed to support the research of students in the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.
Betsy Chunko learned that she won her fellowship while driving with a friend to Kalamazoo, Mich., for an annual International Congress on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University.
"I was very excited and nearly had to pull over the car!" said Chunko, who will spend her time at Humboldt conducting research for her dissertation in later medieval woodcarving. She will also attend two "Doktorandenseminars," which are seminars for doctoral students during Humboldt's winter and summer semesters.
"Humboldt University, like most German universities, has winter and summer semesters, rather than fall and spring semesters," Chunko said.
She is a Pittsburgh native who completed her undergraduate work at the University of Pennsylvania in English. She received a master's degree in medieval literature from The Ohio State University and another from U.Va. in medieval art history before beginning her doctoral studies in art history.
The other fellowship recipient is Hamutal Jackobson, a doctoral student in modern European history who will be completing research for her dissertation, "Not Drawn to Scale: Maps of the Holocaust, 1939 to the Present."
"Focusing on a broad range of cartographical depictions, I analyze the changing functions and meanings of maps during and after the Holocaust," wrote Jackobson in her application.
She said she is honored to have received the fellowship. "I was very happy to be accepted to this program, since it allows me to be part of a different academic community and the possibility to conduct my research while in Berlin." The Israeli attended Tel Aviv University before coming to U.Va.
The two German recipients of fellowships to study at U.Va. have yet to be named. "The memorandum of understanding was just processed in late April, so things are happening very fast," said Jeff Grossman, an associate professor in the Department of Germanic Languages and Literature who headed the selection committee. "We have been exploring the possibility of developing an international, interdisciplinary program with Humboldt for some time."
He said the committee was thrilled with Chunko and Jackobson's applications. "We were very impressed by how Betsy related wood carving to art history, and Hamutal is writing an extremely creative dissertation on the relationship of maps to the Holocaust."
Grossman said the selection committee issued a call to all directors of graduate studies, asking them to identify possible candidates at the doctoral level. "We asked applicants to submit either a copy of their dissertation perspective or a writing sample from their dissertation, their CV, a letter of support from their dissertation adviser and a statement of why it would make sense to participate in the program." Next year, the committee will put out an open call for applications.
"At present, it's a pilot program with guaranteed support for two years, as we pursue additional outside funds to build it up," Grossman said. "We're confident we'll be able to do that since there are considerable resources not being committed in Germany and the U.S. toward international education/cooperation/doctoral programs at the university level."
Grossman said the exchange program is in "the first stage."
"In the future, we would like to see things like courses taught concurrently in Berlin and Charlottesville," he said. "The hope is that we can develop a double Ph.D. program where Berlin students would do part of their training here and Charlottesville students do part of their training in Berlin."