Villanova Liberal Studies Master’s Degree Helps Recent Grad Align Career and Life Goals with Personal Values

Krista Cantrell’s academic excellence led to her induction into the National Honor Society of the Association of Graduate Liberal Studies Programs.

Krista Cantrell ’22 MA

Krista Cantrell ’22 MA began her graduate studies in the summer of 2020, in the midst of a global pandemic and civil unrest. She was working as an assistant director of admission at Villanova University, focusing on undergraduate international student recruitment. During this time of isolation and uncertainty, Villanova’s master’s program in Liberal Studies served as both an opportunity to connect with others and as a path to align her career with her personal values of equity and justice. Today, Cantrell works for a national nonprofit focused on changing the conversation about mental health, and she will walk at the Villanova Graduate Student Commencement on May 20 to receive her diploma and celebrate with the Villanova community.

Her life path was not as clear at the beginning of her graduate school journey, though.

“I was few years out from undergrad and was itching to get back into the classroom to sharpen my mind again. Once I did research and looked into the Villanova Liberal Studies program, it was clear that it was exactly what I was looking for,” Cantrell says. “It ended up being perfect timing with the pandemic hitting. I was accepted about a week after lockdown took effect, and it was such a bright spot during a dark time. My journey began while everyone was stuck indoors with the world outside in turmoil, however, the chance to connect virtually and build an academic community around that shared experience provided the bit of levity I needed. The topics I was exploring intersected perfectly with some of the activism I was involved in as well, particularly with the Black Lives Matter movement after the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. I remember feeling so helpless, but the classroom offered renewed hope. It gave me the tools to fight back and find my voice. Truly, I have so much to be grateful for as a result of this experience.”

Cantrell is now an outreach manager with Active Minds, a nonprofit organization supporting mental health awareness and education for young adults. In her role, Cantrell manages an immersive story and resource sharing program called Send Silence Packing—an interactive exhibit that travels across the country and makes stops on college and high school campuses to spark conversation and inspire action around suicide prevention.

“The topic of mental health is very important to me and holds a special place in my heart,” Cantrell says. “I have lost two cousins to suicide, and I am the daughter of an immigrant. Storytelling has also always been a big part of my life, and I believe it’s the most effective way to make an impact, hence my affection for the liberal arts and my decision to pursue an MA in Liberal Studies. I feel lucky that the work I do aligns with my values and centers on bringing stories and voice to different communities through experiential learning and mental health programming.”

Cantrell focused on the Peace and Justice track within the Liberal Studies program, and notes that her background and interests helped shape her course of study and career. As the child of a Nicaraguan mother and white father, Cantrell says her biracial identity made her feel like she had to straddle two worlds while never entirely belonging to one. Witnessing the injustices and colorism in her own family only fueled her passion for racial equity. She points to Race and Capitalism in the U.S.; The Bible as Literature; Race and Ethnicity in U.S Politics; Love, Justice and Rootedness; and White Backlash and the American State as pivotal courses in her graduate experience.

“The classroom provided a safe space to unpack all that I was seeing and feeling and to be a better advocate in my own community and among peers. Race and Capitalism in the U.S., in particular, provided answers to some of those bigger questions. The course clarified how power has been historically produced, and in turn, how power is reproduced over time and into today to make us these products of our past,” Cantrell says.

William Horne, PhD, the Arthur J. Ennis Post-doctoral Fellow in the Humanities, taught the Race and Capitalism in the U.S. course was impressed by Cantrell’s scholarship and desire to affect change. 

“Krista is an incredible student and asset to our Villanova community, not only for her rigorous analysis but also for her commitment to putting her research into practice,” Dr. Horne says. “Krista's scholarship, organizing and labor perfectly embody the famous line from Marx: ‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.’ Krista applies her research to make our larger community a better place. I cannot think of a better reflection of our intellectual community than that.”

Cantrell’s academic excellence led to her induction into the National Honor Society of the Association of Graduate Liberal Studies Programs (AGLSP) in December 2022.

“I’ll never forget the moment I was virtually defending my thesis and the committee returned from their meeting to let me know I’d passed with distinction. It was so special. All the hard work to get there finally paid off,” Cantrell says. “Being inducted into the AGLSP Honor Society feels like the cherry on top because it reflects one of my deepest convictions, which is the unending value of a liberal arts education. I see now in retrospect that my love of learning has acted like this magic sticky glue that held me together throughout every chapter of my adult life. As I told my defense committee while we were wrapping up, a truism for me continues to be that the liberal arts doesn’t teach us what to think; it shows us how to think. Because of my studies, I have a deeper understanding of who I am and where my place is in relation to others. The lifelong process of applying that knowledge and integrating those concepts into my own little orbit gives me the freedom to lead a more wholesome, moral, and values-driven life.”

Emory Woodard IV, PhD, Dean of Graduate Studies in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, notes that the AGLSP Honor Society requires that inductees not only distinguish themselves academically but also in the greater community.

“Krista’s leadership in both areas weds her interdisciplinary interests with her commitment to igniting the meaningful change our program promotes,” Dean Woodard says. “She exemplifies the goals of our graduate Liberal Studies program, a marquee experience that celebrates the liberal arts tradition of our College.”

Says Cantrell, “In a world that feels increasingly fractured and divided, a liberal arts education is more important than ever. Sharing discourse, sitting through discomfort and asking tough questions creates opportunities for compassionate solutions and positive movement. That’s pretty much all I could ever want or hope for.”

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