Spotlight on Humanities and Social Science Alumni: Sarah Otto
Name: Sarah Otto
Occupation: Exhibition Coordinator, The Cleveland Museum of Art
Education (UR and additional): B.A. in Religion and Psychology, University of Rochester, 2002; Take Five Scholars, Music as a Universal Language, 2003; Master of Theological Studies, Harvard Divinity School, 2006
Current city/state of residence: Cleveland, OH
Why did you choose to attend the University of Rochester?
During my junior year of high school, I was assigned to write a paper for English class in which I researched three different colleges and selected the one that seemed to be the best fit for me. The college I chose was the University of Rochester, which at that time appealed to me for its strengths as a research institution, because I intended to study biology and ultimately pursue a career in genetic research (you’ll notice from my profile information that I wound up on a rather different path!). As a high school senior, I visited the U of R for the first time, and the moment I set foot on campus, I knew it was the place for me. That knowledge wasn’t based on any amount of earlier research or facts of any sort; it was simply an intuition based on the way I felt walking the grounds and touring the buildings. The only way I can describe it is to say I immediately felt at home. I still feel that way about the U of R to this day.
When and how did you choose your major?
In the end, I graduated with a double major in religion and psychology, but I changed my mind more times than I can count. Before I started at the U of R, I planned on majoring in biology. But I’ll never forget when the course catalogue arrived in the mail, the summer before my freshman year. I remember poring over the catalogue and realizing what a wide world had just opened to me. So many interesting subjects – anthropology, psychology, music, religion, philosophy, brain and cognitive sciences – I suddenly felt I had to try them all. I nearly did! By the time I graduated, I had dabbled in every subject listed above, and I had even declared majors that I later “undeclared.” (For those of you who are currently struggling with the decision of a major, rest assured that there is nothing wrong with changing your mind. I’m living proof!) Psychology was one of the subjects I gravitated towards early on, and I wound up sticking with it mainly as an interest (but not a professional pursuit). My introduction to the religion and classics department came through a course taught by Douglas Brooks, The Asian Search for Self. I like to jokingly say that was the course that “converted” me to being a religion major. It inspired me not only to pursue studies of South Asian religions and the Sanskrit language, but also to teach those subjects one day myself (again, you’ll note I wound up doing something a little different).
Who were your mentors while you were on campus? Have you continued those relationships?
The professors at the U of R, in my mind, are all exemplary teachers and mentors. Their passion for teaching and their investment in us as students is something that impresses me to this day. It’s what made me want to be a teacher myself, and although I wound up in a different career, I will always treasure the important relationships I formed with U of R faculty. In particular, Jonathan Geen, who at the time taught Sanskrit in the religion and classics department, became a very close mentor and dear friend over the course of my studies. We remain in contact over email, even though he now teaches at King’s University College in Ontario, Canada. Additionally, I am also still in touch with Daniel Harrison, who taught music theory, which I studied as part of my Take Five Scholars program. Dr. Harrison has also since left the U of R and currently teaches at Yale University.
What do you do now and why did you choose this career?
Currently I am Exhibition Coordinator for the Cleveland Museum of Art. I have held this position since September 2011; prior to that, I was Exhibits Coordinator for the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University for nearly five years. I discovered the Peabody Museum while studying at Harvard Divinity School; I met with a curator there while researching for a paper, and that conversation got me thinking about a museum career for the first time. That same curator later gave me a work study job in her department, followed by a temporary job after I graduated. My foot now in the door, I floated from one temporary appointment to the next, until the Exhibits Coordinator position was posted, and my boss at the time encouraged me to apply. I knew nothing about exhibition planning and very little about museum procedures in general, but I learned very quickly on the job and had a blast in the process. The position at the CMA was the ideal next step for me, because it represented the opportunity to advance in the museum world as well as cross over into the arts. Additionally, I am originally from the Cleveland area, so I have always admired this museum, and I am also glad to be near family again.
What advice do you have for current students?
Savor every moment! Honestly, you won’t believe how quickly time goes by. My decision to attend the University of Rochester is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, and at the risk of sounding cliché, it truly changed my life. There is so much to appreciate about the U of R – the incredible faculty, the beautiful campus, your friendships with fellow students, all of the available programs and resources – and my best advice is really just to take advantage of as much as you can. You won’t regret it.