Photo: Tim Klein
“Without this scholarship, I might not have been able to come back for my final year. This scholarship is allowing me to graduate from college, which is more than I could ever ask for.” -Jennifer Panitch
STUDENT PROFILE: Jennifer Panitch
How starting a blog in Finland led Jennifer Panitch to Columbia and to the Jay W. Boersma Scholarship.As a seventeen-year-old American student and United States Ambassadorial Scholar studying in Finland, Jennifer Panitch was away from home for the first time and not allowed to contact her family for weeks in order to better assimilate to her new culture. She needed a creative outlet—something she could use to express herself and communicate to her family back home.
Blogging became that outlet. “I would sit for hours at the computer, every two weeks or so, throwing these blogs out,” she says. “I realized that I really loved writing, and I was getting a lot of positive feedback. And I thought, ‘I might really be good at this.’”
Now twenty-one, Panitch is not only closing in on her 2013 graduation date from Columbia College Chicago with a BA in Creative Writing – Nonfiction, but she is also the first recipient of the Jay W. Boersma Scholarship, which was established to support exceptional students pursuing degrees housed in the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “There are a very small number of scholarships available for students like me; they’re all very specific,” Panitch says. “Without this scholarship, I might not have been able to come back for my final year. This scholarship is allowing me to graduate from college, which is more than I could ever ask for.”
As the Dean of Columbia’s School of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Dr. Deborah H. Holdstein created the scholarship in December of 2009 in honor of Boersma, who is her husband and a ’74 graduate of the college. Boersma’s focus in fine art photography at Columbia eventually led him to become Professor of Art and Photography at Governors State University, and, later, Senior Creative Director of Playboy.com, where his passion for—and commitment to—the liberal arts amplified and informed his duties managing writers, designers, Web developers, and other creative thinkers.“Jay has always felt that, as an artist, it’s essential to have a broad-based education,” Dean Holdstein says. “I think he represents the best of what we hope for in a Columbia graduate.”
The committee responsible for selecting the first recipient of the Jay W. Boersma Scholarship received a significant number of applications for the award. Ultimately, Panitch’s strong essay on the value of a liberal arts degree, combined with her own contributions to the Creative Writing – Non-fiction program (she worked on two literary journals published through the Department of English and is known among her professors as a stellar and dedicated student) led her to stand out among her peers.
“I can’t think of a more worthy student for the Jay W. Boersma Scholarship than Jennifer Panitch,” says David Lazar, Professor in the Department of English and Editor of Hotel Amerika. “She was my student and an assistant on Hotel Amerika, the multi-genre literary magazine published in the English Department. Her work is astute, innovative, creative, and always exceeds the requirements of the class, the assignment, and the task at hand. She is a clear academic leader.”
Originally a transfer student from Flagler College, a small liberal arts college in St. Augustine, Florida, Panitch’s life-changing experience studying in Finland initially led her to pursue a degree in journalism. But after taking a few courses and realizing journalism wasn’t exactly her “cup of tea,” she began to research degrees in creative nonfiction. That is when she found Columbia. “I wanted to write about Finland and share my experiences,” she says. “I figured that nonfiction was the right avenue for me, and I figured it was logical because it would allow me to dabble in different fields when I graduate.”
Now in her senior year, and with financial help from the Jay W. Boersma Scholarship, Panitch is considering her post-Columbia path, mindful that a well-rounded education in the liberal arts is preparing her for an array of career opportunities—including possibly teaching abroad. “I feel like I’m able to not just be a writer with this degree; I can go into so many different fields and still be successful,” she says. “I’d love to be able to go back and live and assimilate into a new society and learn from them,” she says, “and I think that teaching English would be a really great way to do so.” Should she decide to teach English abroad, Panitch says that her students will benefit from having a worldly and well-educated teacher. “I feel like I’d be able to give them a little more culture, literature, or history,” she says.