Mentor Spotlight: Nell Cloutier


Who are the graduate students who serve as Berkeley Connect mentors? Meet Nell Cloutier, who just completed a year as a Berkeley Connect Fellow in Music.

Q: Why did you decide to go to graduate school, and why did you choose UC Berkeley? 

When I was an undergraduate [at Washington University in St. Louis], I didn’t know what major to choose. I ended up majoring in the Interdisciplinary Project in the Humanities (which was basically training wheels for graduate school) and Music. The humanities program required me to do independent research and to develop my own specialization, and I chose opera studies. Focusing on opera let me study everything I wanted to. It requires you to be interdisciplinary, and you get to think about things like literature, sociology, dance, costumes and fashion, markets, politics, aesthetics, and histories of emotion. I worked at Opera Theater of Saint Louis during the summers as their education intern and figured out that I didn’t want an office job quite yet. I also started thinking seriously about becoming a professor. I applied to graduate schools in my senior year. I had a hard time choosing between offers from UCLA and Berkeley. Both have great programs and really cool people to work with. Eventually the head of my department told me to just stop enjoying dithering and choose the one we all knew I wanted to go to: Berkeley. My advisor here, Mary Ann Smart, was one of the authors that I really enjoyed reading as an undergrad, and her work really influenced my senior thesis. Getting to work with her was too great to pass up. I think I made a good choice. I’ve been happy and challenged here.

Q: What are your plans for the future, after graduate school?

I’ll finish up my dissertation next year, which means I’ll be on the job market for professorships and post-doctoral fellowships in the fall. That’s scary to me, because being a professor requires a lot of geographic flexibility, and my fiancé will also be on the job market. I’d love to become a professor at a small liberal arts college, because I really enjoy teaching and connecting with students, but there aren’t very many of those jobs. I’ve considered alternative careers, such as honky-tonk pianist at a bar, but unfortunately I’m not good at staying up late or having much of a sense of rhythm, so I think being a professor is a better bet.

Q: What drew you to Berkeley Connect? How did you hear about it?

I heard about Berkeley Connect when it appeared in my department in the Spring of 2014. There were three graduate fellows and a bunch of undergrads, and they all looked like they were having a great time. Sometimes I would overhear snippets of one-on-one conversations and think, “Wow! I want to talk with my students about things like that!” My undergraduate humanities major was really small and focused on connections between faculty and students. I worked closely with a few faculty members, and I still go back and visit them because now we’re friends. My undergrad cohort (of 3) was really important to my academic and personal development. I wanted to give Cal students a chance to find those connections here. Even though it’s an enormous university, I think that Cal can provide similar feelings of belonging, connecting, and being valued.

Q: Who was a mentor in your academic life? 

My undergraduate advisor, Tili Boon Cuillé, is a wonderful mentor. She taught several of the courses I took and advised my senior thesis. She used to give me cookies and tea during our meetings, with a side of honest criticism on what I’d just written. She’s still very much a part of my academic and personal life: I gave my first conference paper at a conference she co-organized, and we see each other once or twice a year.

Q: What do you love most about Berkeley Connect?

I really love the one-on-one meetings. Cal students are really fun to hang out with! A lot of my meetings boil down to, “Okay, so you need to take care of yourself. I’ve learned this, and here are some things that work for me.” Then we talk about how to do enough work and still sleep, or what resources there are on campus for health concerns, or how to work more effectively. One of my favorite moments was during one of these meetings, feeling like I’d made a real difference in how a student viewed his mental health, and then seeing him go on to deal with those challenges and succeed wonderfully. My other proudest moment was organizing a music lesson exchange. People went around the circle saying what they wanted to learn, and then we matched them up with people who could teach them how to play that instrument. I also love the random bits of oddness that happen. One of my students played the bagpipes for us this semester, and last semester one student taught us all how to do a dead-lift. I didn’t expect either of those things going into Berkeley Connect in the fall!

posted by Katherine Wang

Berkeley Connect Communications Assistant