A farewell to Catalyst sponsor Maria D. Vesperi
Maria Vesperi with Catalyst staff writers and editors in front of the Anthropology Lab. Photo courtesy of Gaby Batista.

A farewell to Catalyst sponsor Maria D. Vesperi

Having been an integral part of the New College community since 1993, Professor of Anthropology Maria D. Vesperi has lived through and cultivated many of the phases New College has undergone over the decades. As not only an anthropologist, but a journalist with 12 years of experience, Vesperi facilitated countless Catalyst tutorials and anthropology courses that have left a lasting impression on the many students, staff and faculty with whom she has interacted. As her time at New College comes to an end, her legacy and endless fervor for knowledge and information deserve a spotlight in the very publication she had sponsored so attentively and passionately.

Vesperi’s academic career has been nothing short of exciting, and may offer students a look into the possibilities of what their future may hold. “[Anthropology] has been my passion since I was 18 years old,” she explained in an interview with the Catalyst. “I went to college intending to major in art history because I had a wonderful art history teacher in high school. Originally, I wanted to be a veterinarian because I love animals and I was good at science but not at math. When I saw some of the math involved in graduate school and such, I knew it wasn’t going to happen.”

After she was accepted into the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s honors program in her home state, Vesperi’s randomly assigned academic advisor opened up the world of anthropology to her. “By week three I said, ‘I want to declare my major.’ And I never really wavered from it… An anthropological perspective helps you to always be mindful of others’ points of view, respectful [and] curious. If you have an anthropological background you’ll never be bored. No matter where you are, there’s always something to look at.”

Vesperi continued her anthropological training at Princeton University where she earned her Master’s and and completed her PhD at age 26. Her dissertation on low-income Black and White elders living in downtown cities brought her to Florida, where she found her sunny home.  She taught anthropology courses at the University of South Florida (USF) in Tampa from 1978 to 1981,  eventually exploring the path of journalism when the Tampa Bay Times reached out. “When I first went into journalism, I wasn’t very clear on why they wanted me because I had no background at all in journalism. But they said, ‘You have a perspective, you have something to bring, you have a framework.’

“They called me up… so I went for the summer and worked there and it was really interesting,” she continued. “The next spring they said, ‘Can you send a writing sample?’ So I sent them an article I had published from my Master’s work, it was on nursing homes. And my advisor, who I owe a lot to, said it was the only Master’s thesis he had to read with a drink in his hand…” After getting the article, she recalled, the Times called and asked, “How would you like to work for us?”

Her stretch at the Tampa Bay Times lasted 12 years, exactly 11 years longer than she had originally anticipated. While working for the Times in St. Petersburg and later in the paper’s Washington D.C. bureau, Vesperi continued to teach anthropology courses and publish books and articles in the field. “I was sitting in my office one day, flipping through the Anthropology News, and there was an ad for New College,” she recalled. She remembers the Times as “a great place to work,” but she was drawn to the pedagogy at New College because with her editors’ approval she had taught several courses there in the mid-1980s.  “I said ‘Hey, can I take off two afternoons a week and go teach in Sarasota?’ And they said OK.”

Right before she left Washington, “I had this huge envelope in the mail,” Vesperi continued. “It was funky, it was clearly used two or three times, it had a lot of stickers and writing on the outside. My colleagues, curious journalists that they were, brought it over to me and they stood there like, ‘Open it.’ So I did, and these things poured out. It was filled with some pretty good drawings but some extremely libelous writing. There was a letter in it that said, ‘We’re interested in journalism and we’re excited that you’re coming.’”

Once she was on campus, “They [students] approached me and one thing led to another… They came over [to my home] for dinner and I could see them looking at each other, conspiring about something. They said, ‘How would you like us to have a newspaper and we can call it the Catalyst just like the original paper?’ So that’s how we got started.”

Working at New College was an exciting experience for Vesperi, who saw herself in so many of her students. Self-described as a bored K-12 student, moving onto higher education was a breath of fresh air. Studying what specifically interested her and receiving the intellectual stimulation she had always yearned for made New College the perfect place to begin the longest stint of her career.

Vesperi described the different eras of the Catalyst as pre- and post-internet. Research now done via Google search was collected in the library, article drafts and edits were done on paper, and most importantly, the community was able to read weekly news in printed newspapers that were distributed across campus. “When things got more electronic, that was an experimental period. Sorting out where to get information, what was good information, and that’s still going on, of course. Credible information is a real challenge—a challenge for all journalists.

“Another era is when Alexis [Santos] (’12) got us our website and we started to publish online,” she continued. “We did that because it was fun and it was good experience, and it was 2015, a period where it was really clear that print journalism was not going to be as strong as it was. People needed an additional skill set… And then, of course, there was the Covid era which was really hard. I had to teach online for two and a half years… And then the next year, sadly, was the era of January 6 [2023]. I never would have thought that, in all these years, we would face something like it. I never would have thought I’d be helping students navigate those kinds of problems… You can deal with more bureaucracy and rules about this or that or a mascot or whatever. But this kind of pervasive undermining and disrespect for the values and integrity of an institution is so corrosive. I never thought that would happen.”

Vesperi offered an inside look at how the inner workings of the Catalyst shifted post January 2023, referencing a moment from the past when colleagues of a journalism friend were essentially blocked from contacting White House officials during the Bush administration after Sept. 11, 2001. “They were turned away, they didn’t get answers. She talked about how hard that was and how they would try to be creative about it but it was a real blow to their sense of who they were because they had always been respected as information gatherers… When all this happened at New College, [the story] came back to me strongly because that’s what started to happen. That’s why I always told the students, ‘You are now experiencing real life journalism. This isn’t just a college class anymore…’ I never thought I would be drawing on that kind of background.”

Any career will come with its highs and lows—Vesperi is proving that point exactly. While retirement brings bittersweet memories and feelings, she hopes to continue contributing to her field and to the wider Tampa Bay area. After the semester ends, she hopes to complete two books she had long put on the backburner: one about anthropology and journalism and the other covering the 150-year social history of an  intentional  community in Massachusetts—a topic she has been researching for decades. Vesperi looks forward to spending time with her family and hopes to continue working closely with the American Anthropological Association, plus tending to her yard, volunteering at a veterinarian’s office and continuing her work in social justice.

Despite living in St. Petersburg, she made the commute across the Skyway to provide students with classes like History of Anthropological Theory, Language, Culture and Society, Urban Anthropology and more. Her 30 year legacy is woven within the fibers that make New College. The concept of ecstatic wonder that many New College community members identify with perfectly encapsulates the teaching Vesperi brought to campus, further fostering the inquisitive minds that go onto complete Fulbright programs, receive doctoral degrees and enact change in the world.

“Maria has taught me that news comes first and students have a right to know what is going on in their campus. I am so grateful for all that she has taught me,” first-year and Catalyst staff writer Alexandra Levy said. “So thank you, Maria, for taking me on to be part of this small newspaper with a big history and future.”

With hearts full of love, admiration and a tinge of sadness, the Catalyst bids Vesperi the most honorable of farewells. The Catalyst would simply not be the same without her.

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