Most everything about Heather Rae Monk’s experience in Arizona State University’s master’s degree program in narrative studies has been distinctive.
Let’s begin with the end.
Monk graduated May 11 with the distinction of being the first person at ASU and in the United States to have earned a Master of Arts in narrative studies. She was also recognized at ASU virtual commencement ceremonies as ASU’s outstanding graduate among master’s degree and doctoral students in the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts.
Monk vividly recalls the information session she attended in 2018 to learn more about this new graduate degree being launched at ASU’s Polytechnic campus. As the only prospective student who attended that initial meeting, she had the opportunity for an in-depth dialogue.
“Faculty members Vanessa Fonseca-Chávez and Patricia Colleen Murphy talked with me about the new program. I knew Trish well from my undergraduate work with Superstition Review as her fiction editor, and Vanessa and I really hit it off,” explained Monk. “She had worked and lived in my home state of Wyoming — it’s so rare to meet anyone who’s lived in Wyoming. She was also invested in oral traditions and helping to maintain oral histories, which I was fascinated by. I saw this program as a way to further my study of narrative after my undergraduate degree.”
Monk, who earned her undergraduate degree in English (creative writing) at ASU, hails from Cowley, Wyoming, and earned an Associate of Arts in French language from Northwest College, in Powell, before coming to ASU.
She applied for the MA program and was accepted into the first cohort in fall 2018.
Throughout the two years of the program she impressed faculty with her leadership, resilience, academic excellence and generous mentoring of peers. Several faculty members mentioned those qualities in their nominations of Monk for the outstanding graduate honor.
“Rae has been a shining example of what we envisioned for our students in the program,” reflected Fonseca-Chávez. “She is always willing to help promote the program and inspires other students to explore new areas of inquiry and to push the boundaries of storytelling.”
In spring 2019, Monk and Fonseca-Chávez co-wrote and were awarded an ASU Public History Collaborative Grant for the project “Community Storytelling and Place” to document and study oral histories in Hispanic communities in eastern Arizona.
In preparation for story gathering, Monk spent last summer doing archival research for historical information on Concho and St. Johns, Ariz., researched oral history methodologies and best practices and familiarized herself with the recording equipment.
Fonseca-Chávez noted that her careful preparation contributed to success in the field: “Rae is an excellent interviewer and her meticulous preparation shined through in her seamless conversations. She was able to build upon her lived experiences in rural Wyoming to make meaningful connections to community in rural Arizona.”
“The first oral history interview we conducted was life-altering for me,” Monk said. “I’ve been so blessed to meet and speak with such incredible people in St. Johns and Concho, Arizona, and to be a part of their oral history documentation. Working with Vanessa has made my experience in the program. She challenges me, but without breaking my confidence. She is genuinely interested in the welfare of her students in and outside of the classroom.”
Monk had conference proposals about the work accepted at both the Arizona History Convention and the National Association for Chicana and Chicano Studies Conference (but COVID-19 precautions canceled those assemblies). She turned the grant into the focus of a rigorous master’s degree capstone project and is working with Murphy and Fonseca-Chávez to explore outlets to publish the project, which combines oral history with creative nonfiction.
“I’m confident that the work Rae is doing now will take her far in life,” said Fonseca-Chávez. “She came to the program with a sense of determination and such a good heart, committed to doing well in her classes and contributing to projects, while working two or more jobs to pay for her education,” she added with admiration. “I’ve no doubt she’ll continue to excel in everything that she does.”