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Dominick Zarrillo ’19

Can you discuss your experience as a transfer student at TCNJ?

I transferred to TCNJ in August 2017, during the start of my junior year. As a transfer student from a community college, it was quite daunting to adapt to living on campus at a four-year school because I did not have the same two years of socialization as other students. But luckily for me, I was able to adapt quickly, in particular thanks to our welcome week specifically for transfer students, which enabled me to make friends quickly and learn the ways of the campus very early on. While I worked hard at community college, being a transfer student motivated me to work even harder. I was determined in making the most of my time at TCNJ and take advantage of all the opportunities available. For this, I believe I succeeded, and I accomplished more than I could have ever imagined would have been possible, from widely exploring different parts of the tri-state area, meeting amazing people and professors from a wide variety of backgrounds and expertise, present at the Celebration of Student Achievement twice, and writing over two hundred pages worth of papers and theses etc. Because of my hard work at TCNJ, soon after I graduated, I was awarded by the New Jersey State General Assembly in recognition of my excellency in academics. Although I was only at TCNJ for two years, graduating in 2019, my experience there taught me skills and knowledge which has and will continue to undoubtedly serve me well in any of my future endeavors.

How did your time as a History major help focus and define your future goals?

 As a history major at TCNJ, I was able to take classes on a wide range of topics, allowing me to study not only what I was already interested in but also learn about subjects that I had no idea I would enjoy until I took these courses, such as the early modern period, modern Japan, the Roman Republic, and so on. From courses such as these, I was also able to learn about different approaches and perspectives to studying and writing about history, from historiographies to gender studies and religion. In particular, research and writing are two of my main strengths that developed while I was majoring in history at TCNJ. While at TCNJ, I frequently had to conduct research and write papers on historical events and sites with often very little publicly available information or in languages that required translation (such as in Icelandic or Danish for my independent study papers and honors thesis). The latter experience had been very helpful to me, especially during my time as a graduate student in Iceland. The department assisted me in defining my long-term goals because I was allowed to demonstrate my strengths and recognized my will to go further as an academic writer. This experience was one of the primary reasons why I wanted to advance in academia by eventually obtaining a master’s degree. I will continue to use what I have learned from my time as a history major in my professional and personal life with a career in the field that will continue to push my skills and mind further.

Can you tell us about your time as a student in Iceland?

To say that my time in Iceland has been a saga would be an understatement, for it is certainly worthy of a book. For me, experiencing Iceland and studying its history and culture has been a passion ever since I first studied abroad there with Brookdale Community College in June 2016 and visited several times after. It was finally in late 2020 that I decided to apply to the MA in Medieval Icelandic Studies Programme at the University of Iceland (Háskóli Íslands) in Reykjavík. Luckily, my former professors, Dr. Paces and Dr. Kovalev were readily willing to write my letters of recommendation, and with this, I was accepted into the program in March 2021 and moved to Reykjavík in August of the same year. I arrived in Iceland during renewed COVID-19 variants that made entry, visa application, and daily life very difficult, and of course, I was completely alone in a country where I did not know anyone. Eventually, this changed, and I had the opportunity to go on countless adventures, make memories, and meet now-lifelong friends who came from all across the world. I eventually began working on my MA thesis, which was a cultural study that detailed the future planned preservation of the archaeological ruins of a Viking-age longhouse discovered in the center of downtown Reykjavík in 2015 in comparison to similar turf-built heritage sites, working with the lead archaeologist that had excavated the ruins and speaking with experts from across the country. I had been the first to write about the site in detail and its future in the over seven years since its discovery.

During the same time, what is now perhaps one of my personal greatest achievements in Iceland had been in June 2022 when having been dissatisfied with my then-living situation and the university program in general, and after all of my friends had left the country, I decided to move alone to Skagafjörður in the remote northern part of Iceland with little more than a backpack. With no idea what to expect, but the ultimate sense of adventure. From here, I was able to experience things I never thought I would and created a new life for myself. I experienced all the north had to offer from road trips, the midnight sun, and even sheep herding in a valley, and as Skagafjörður is called the “turf house capital” of Iceland, I was able to visit the numerous historic sites throughout the fjord, allowing me to conduct further field research for my thesis. Although the path was more difficult than I had anticipated (including the dark and cold winter alone in north Iceland and numerous problems with sources), I would finally complete my master’s thesis in January of 2023 and received my MA degree in February of the same year.

 What History Department courses or professors were especially memorable for you while you were a student here?

 The professors of the department and their courses are what made my experience at TCNJ so memorable. The three professors that I worked the closest with were Dr. Roman Kovalev, Dr. Cynthia Paces, and Dr. Craig Hollander.

My first semester I had a course with Dr. Kovalev on early-modern Witch Trials, and because of my interest in this, I was inspired to research on and write about witch trials in seventeenth-century Iceland. We decided to collaborate and expand on this in what became one of my most defining academic works, in which I wrote a nearly seventy-page paper on the Icelandic witch craze of the seventeenth century, and I became the first to write about the topic of those executed in English in its entirety (the paper is still 4% of all read papers on Academia.edu). Dr. Kovalev subsequently created a reading seminar course on the Icelandic Sagas based on our earlier discussions about Icelandic history, which I unsurprisingly enrolled in and greatly enjoyed the opportunity to study one of my historical interests at TCNJ. He and I would work together again, and he would become my thesis advisor for my Honors Thesis during my senior year, a research-intensive undertaking that described religious material culture in medieval Greenland. Because of his expertise, I truly believe that I learned more about Icelandic history and culture at TCNJ with Dr. Kovalev than I have learned during the entire course of my studies abroad in Iceland.

Dr. Paces was not only a professor of mine but was also my academic advisor and counselor. I was enrolled in her honors thesis seminar which helped me to gain an understanding of the writing and research skills required to write my undergraduate thesis (and eventually I utilized the same skills for my master’s thesis). During those two years, she was one of my most ardent supporters, and she was always there for me when I needed her. She made certain that my transfer process to TCNJ went smoothly, and later that I was prepared to graduate with the appropriate credits and curriculum.

Dr. Hollander’s seminar course on Colonial America was the first course I had at TCNJ and was memorable for a variety of reasons. The course and its reading material helped me to explore one of my favorite topics and periods in history from different social perspectives than I would normally approach, something that I utilized in my thesis. The class trip to the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia and my trip to Valley Forge National Park for a class research project were some of the most memorable of my whole TCNJ academic career because they allowed me to see places that I had never been and feel the history I was studying up close.

And I have to of course mention my memories of the delightful Laura Hargreaves of the department office for always assisting me (and others) with course or department questions. She was a lifesaver, especially when I needed help with my academics and scheduling at any time of the day. I cannot thank them all enough for what they have done for me both academically and personally, and I have to mention how close I remain with them to this day. My master’s thesis, of course, was dedicated in part to my former TCNJ professors. Dr. Paces and I even had a joyful reunion for the first time in years when she visited me in Reykjavík late last year.

 What would you say to someone who is considering becoming a History major at TCNJ?

One of the best decisions you can make is to major in History at TCNJ. I would recommend becoming a history major to anyone looking for a fulfilling education that will prepare them for their future career, as the department provides students with a variety of resources and opportunities to gain practical academic experience and make valuable and personal connections throughout the department and in the larger field of history. Since graduating, the knowledge, skills, and experiences I gained etc., as a history major have defined me and proved invaluable in my academic, personal, and professional life. I truly believe that I would never have considered or been able to come to Iceland to further my education if it had not been for this. Even from Iceland, I can recall fondly my time in the Social Sciences Building as if it were yesterday, and when I recently took a short trip back home and visited TCNJ for the first time since graduating, I could not have felt more welcomed by my former professors (now friends). I am confident that anyone considering majoring in history at TCNJ will find the department to be incredibly beneficial and as evidenced by my experiences, that it will open paths to new opportunities for them in the future.

Where do you see yourself five years from now?

In terms of Iceland, I have had more opportunities and seen more of the country and its culture during my numerous visits since 2016 and the last two years of living here than the majority of non-Icelanders ever get to experience. Although I am still living here as I write this, I am getting ready to return home in the upcoming weeks.

Much has changed for me since moving to Iceland, including my interests and goals. Because of my love of old buildings, I hope to pursue and obtain a career in historic preservation and research, but I am open to anything because historical archaeology, museum and cultural studies, or even historical tourism are all fields that have recently caught my interest, especially since living in Iceland. Of course, while I admire Iceland, I am a Jersey boy born and raised, and I would love to stay in my home state and work to ensure the preservation of the state’s colonial-period historic sites. I currently do not have any plans to pursue a doctorate, but I cannot rule anything out. But I may even return to Iceland for this, or perhaps go to Italy, as many of the Italian tourists I met remarked on my Italian ancestry and told me I should study in Rome. I am not sure where I will be in five years because life can change so quickly, but I honestly feel that as long as I am happy, healthy, and have a career that continues to expand my knowledge and challenge me while at the same time making life exciting, that is all I can hope for. There is a quote in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013), the film that inspired my first trip to Iceland all those years ago and I still think about it, that says: “Life is about courage and going into the unknown.”

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