Graduate Student Spotlight: Michelle Sandhoff

I’m from northern California, closer to the mountains than the beach. And no, we did not go surfing after school and my one star sighting, George Clooney, actually occurred in DC, not California. Moving to the East Coast was a quite a culture shock, but after 5 years here I think I’m starting to get the swing of things.

Growing up, I attended a large high school in the suburbs. Until moving out to the East Coast I didn’t realize that enclosed multi-story high schools existed outside of the movies. My first firefly sighting was also a shock. Looking back, I was very fortunate in having many outstanding teachers in high school who helped me get where I am now. Perhaps most important was the U.S. History teacher who convinced the school to let him offer Anthropology as a semester-long elective. I think it is fair to say this class changed my life as it lit in me a curiosity about cultures and societies and the vast diversity of the world which has shaped my work since.

After graduation I went on to study International Relations (from an Anthropological perspective) at the University of California, Davis. Davis is a small agricultural town in the central valley of California, and remains quintessentially a college town. In addition to having a wonderfully interdisciplinary program in International Relations, attending an agricultural school meant there were some rather unusual electives. To round out my general education requirements I took courses in entomology (the study of insects) and avian sciences. My final semester I took a class in tractor driving.

UC Davis also gave me many opportunities to continue learning about cultures and societies, both in the classroom and out. I spent my junior year studying abroad at the American University of Cairo. Between field trips to the Pyramids, the Red Sea, and Petra (think Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade) I took classes in the local history, politics, and language. I learned to haggle for kitsch at Khan el-Khalili, where to find the best koshari (a popular local pasta, rice, and tomato dish), and a handful of traditional dances. I also had the chance to travel throughout the Middle East, experiencing first hand the vastly different ways we as humans organize ourselves.

After my undergraduate study I was fortunate enough to get a job right away in the DC-area working for the National Security Education Program (NSEP), a federal scholarship program. I worked in this job for two years, learning my way around DC and figuring out the whole real world 9-to-5 thing. It also gave me time to realize that despite my initial joy at not having homework on evenings or weekends that I did really want to return to school.

As I began considering going to graduate school, I knew that substantively I was interested in studying the military. This was in large part due to my many travels (by this point I had added China and Central America to my list). Around the world, the military was a constant presence, yet in dramatically different ways. From the police in Egypt who seemed to spend their days drinking tea and catcalling passersby, to the very young soldiers of Israel, to the newly minted officers taking pictures with foreigners on the Great Wall of China, the military was clearly an important institution. And despite similar missions of national defense, the ways in which militaries are organized and their relationships with civilian populations provided yet another way to explore the diversity of human societies. Knowing then that I wanted to study the military finding out about the program at Maryland was purely luck. I had never heard of the field of Military Sociology, but one day while commuting to work, I read an article in the local paper that quoted Prof David Segal from the Military Sociology program here. And the rest, as they say, is history.

I am now in my third year in the program and am hoping to begin my doctoral research very soon. Building on my driving interests in diversity, I have been pursing research on diversity in the military since I began the program. This has predominantly focused on minorities in the military, such as women. But my newest project is partially taking me back to my roots in studying culture and the Middle East as I examine the experiences of Muslims serving in the U.S. military.

Unlike most of the students entering a PhD program in Sociology when I began this program I was largely starting from scratch. I remember for the first day of theory we were supposed to read C.W. Mills’ book “The Sociological Imagination” which the professor assumed we all had a copy of. I had never heard of C.W. Mills and spent a day running around in a panic feeling like I was already falling behind. Since then, I like to think I have settled well into the role of Sociologist. My own approach to life and Sociology remains very much focused on issues of culture and diversity, and takes perhaps a more international approach than is common. In this way I see my interdisciplinary background as an asset. I am interested in how the world works, and deeply believe that the social sciences are as important as the natural sciences in getting the whole picture. I think that it is only by taking a good look at the variation that surrounds us and by experiencing everything we can that we as social scientists can begin to grasp what an amazingly complex world we live in.

Michelle is a third year PhD student.

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