English Major on Way to a Ph.D. With Prestigious Fellowship

Melissa Pankake learns from the past, but is excited about the future. An English major with a passion for the Medieval, Melissa, the recent Class of 2011 Valedictorian from Lebanon Pa, is headed to Princeton University with a prestigious graduate fellowship, one of two each year offered by the Council of Independent Colleges. She will pursue a Ph.D. in English with a concentration in medieval literature.

2011 Class Valedictorian, Melissa Pankake

A student with many interests, Melissa spent her spring break building houses in rural Kentucky. As an active member of the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship and the Ursinus College Chapel since her freshman year, and current Chapel president, she offered a monthly message and organized programs like an upcoming Interfaith dinner. She is a member of the community service-oriented Upsilon Phi Delta Sorority, participated in Ursinus College Environmental Action events, served on the Center for Writing staff, and worked for the Berman Museum of Art.

Her passion is medieval English. “It pains me that so many people still regard the Middle Ages as a dark age, a black-and-white text full of ‘ye’s and random extra ‘e’s,” she says. “The past has so much to teach us about ourselves, and I am grateful for the opportunity to study its vibrant literature more fully.”

Melissa explored the character of Lancelot in the 15th century Arthurian prose Morte D’Arthur as a Summer Fellow in 2010. The research formed the groundwork for an honors thesis on how author Sir Thomas Malory, who was a knight himself, perceived chivalry at the end of the Middle Ages.

“Summer Fellows was probably the hardest thing I have ever done as an Ursinus student, because I wasn’t used to working on the same project constantly without activities or classes to break up the work,” she recalls. She learned, she says, about her own creative process, and the importance of pacing.

She just had an article published in the undergraduate journal Proto. Her scholarship from the Council for Independent Colleges and also from Princeton, will cover tuition and expenses, including summer study,

Melissa says her achievements at Ursinus are due in part to supportive parents, and faculty mentor Joyce Lionarons, Professor of English. “She has been my biggest supporter and guide,” Melissa says of her professor. “She has overseen my Summer Fellows project, Honors project, and grad school application process—and I credit her with keeping me sane through all of it.  I wouldn’t have had the confidence even to apply for the American Graduate Fellowship if she had not encouraged me to do so.”

Professor Lionarons says that Melissa “is every professor’s dream student. She does all the work on time, and then does more:  she can synthesize ideas from previous courses, whether in English or another discipline, and come up with new ways of looking at old issues.  Her writing is superb, and I think that her facility with languages — she has Latin, Greek, French, and Old English — allows her to think about Modern English words in both their contemporary meanings and root meanings, giving her writing a depth that most writers attain much later in life, if at all.”

In addition to the faculty mentoring, Melissa said she fell in love with Ursinus during a tour.“I couldn’t get it out of my head—I could sense a very close-knit, friendly, almost incubating sort of community that drew me in right from the get-go.  I was also attracted by the phenomenal study abroad program (my experience abroad, by the way, was life-changing).”

The graduate fellowship is funded by a grant from the Wichita Falls Area Community Foundation, Witchita Falls, Texas to support two students from small, liberal arts colleges to attend one of a handful of prestigious institutions in the U.S. and United Kingdom.