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Washington and Lee University

Washington and Lee University
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Michael O'Brien '10

Hometown: Houston, TX

Majors: English, Studio Art (Concentration in Photography)

Extracurricular Involvement:

  • Student Judicial Council, Senior Justice
  • Lambda Chi Alpha
  • Contact Committee
  • Arts League
  • Senior Gift Committee
  • Residential Advisor for First-Year Students

Off-Campus Experiences:

  • Spring 2008: Study Abroad in London
  • Summer 2008: Study Abroad in Cortona, Italy
  • Summer 2009: Student Summer Independent Research Grant
  • Summer 2009 - Present: Photography Internship with Sally Mann
  • 2010- Photographing Rockbridge area farmers for the University

Post-Graduation Plans: Immediately after graduating I plan to stay in Lexington to use the studios, and eventually I'll go to grad school for my MFA in photography.

Favorite Class: It's too hard to pick one. Every art class has been fantastic, particularly photography and art history. In English, my capstone on the memoir was amazing. The class culminated with each of the six students writing his/her own twenty page memoir.

Favorite W&L Event: Tropical

Favorite Spot on Campus: In a rocking chair on the porch of my fraternity house in the spring.


Coming into W&L, I knew for a fact I wanted to major in politics, and I told myself I would consider a double major in history or possibly something in the business school. Even late in my sophomore year I couldn't have imagined I would end up graduating not with a major in politics, but with a double major in English and studio art. When I chose to enroll at Washington and Lee, I knew I was choosing a special school, but I had no idea just how forceful it would be in shaping both me and my future.

My conversion to English was the first thing to happen. After three terms of taking English and politics classes side by side, I discovered I was enjoying English in a way I had never experienced in high school. It was Modern British Poetry with Laura Brodie that ultimately decided my conversion to the English major. Professor Brodie gave literature a vitality and relevance that I have since found from professor after professor in the English department.

In the fall term of my sophomore year, having never studied art, I took Photography I to fulfill my fine arts requirement. Photo I led to Photo II, and by Photo III I convinced myself to major, a decision that was only hard because of the future I had previously envisioned for myself. While working in the studio I often have to remind myself of how fortunate I am to have the opportunity to study photography at Washington and Lee.

As with the English major, the strength of the photography program is its professors. Christa Bowden, who developed the program from the ground up (she literally designed the darkrooms, the studio and the classes) is one of the best professors I've had at W&L. Her dedication to the art of photography and to her students takes her role above and beyond that of a professor and into the realm of mentor. The most valuable thing Professor Bowden does for her students is to allow them to explore photography without limitations. The other photography students and I know that we have complete access both to the facilities and to Professor Bowden. She is the reason photography at W&L is as strong as it is.

As incredible and fulfilling as my education has been, I don't think my story is special when it comes to Washington and Lee. I have friends in many other departments across campus who have had similar experiences to mine, and while only a handful of students publish their stories on this Web site, a multitude more just like this exist. Washington and Lee is a place where students are met with exceptional facilities, professors and opportunities. It is a place where students are challenged daily and where they can choose their own path, whether that means campus involvement, grant opportunities, community service, all three or more. I think the endless existence of opportunities is the strength of a small liberal arts school like Washington and Lee. If I had gone to a larger school, a school with less funding or a school whose professors are more invested in research than they are in their students, I would not be the well-rounded, developed individual I am today. I owe who I am and what my future holds to Washington and Lee, and I feel very proud to call it my school.