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May 29, 2008

Double Duty! Sarah Bischoff Earns BA and MA Degrees in History Simultaneously at La Salle University

A lot can happen in four years. It was only that long ago that Sarah Bischoff started at La Salle University in Philadelphia as an undergraduate history major. And yet, because of some clever scheduling, a slew of Advanced Placement (AP) credits and quite a bit of hard work, she’ll leave La Salle this summer with not only her Bachelor of Arts, but also a Masters’ degree as well. 

Bischoff, 22, has already reaped benefits from pulling this double duty -- she recently accepted a five-year, tuition-free scholarship to the Rice University’s prestigious Ph.D. program in American Studies. Rice’s program admits only 10 doctoral students each year, and Bischoff will also receive an annual stipend for living expenses during her time in Houston, Texas, providing she works a few hours a week as a research assistant.

“I’m excited for it, and it’s the type of community I was looking for,” said Bischoff. “When I stepped onto Rice it was similar to when I stepped onto La Salle in terms of the feeling I got from the place and the people there.” 

Before moving to Houston, Bischoff will spend this summer in the Philadelphia area while finishing her Master’s degree (which she’ll receive in August). She’ll be working part-time in the La Salle Library’s AV Department and at Rita’s Water Ice. In between jobs, she’ll also put the finishing touches on her thesis, which concerns Abraham Lincoln’s two personal secretaries, John Hay and John Nicolay.  

“They knew Lincoln pretty well and had a unique inside perspective on him,” Bischoff said. “They weren’t in cabinet positions, but they went on special missions for Lincoln, who utilized them in capacities that secretaries today aren’t used in.” 

Her thesis, which Bischoff estimated would clock in around 80 pages, will show that the viewpoints of the two men are different from each other, despite the fact that “many sources have commonly treated them as one voice.” 

Although she acknowledged that the research that goes into such a project is daunting, she said she actually finds it very enjoyable, as long as there’s a purpose to all the work. 

“I like to do it as long as I keep in mind the overall big picture,” she said. “If you take the smaller picture and expand upon it and link it to a larger picture to prove a point or amplify something that’s still relevant, there’s some satisfaction in doing that.” 

Bischoff hopes that distinguishing the two secretaries will add new dimensions to the perception of Lincoln. As a result, her thesis has been titled “The Tycoon: Abraham Lincoln through the perspective of his two personal secretaries.” 

When her thesis is completed, Bischoff will officially become one of the first two La Salle students to complete the double-duty history degrees. Along with fellow senior Anthony Delcollo (who plans to pursue law school), Bischoff began taking graduate courses in her junior year under the supervision of George Stow, director of La Salle’s Graduate Program in History, who taught both students through the Honors Program during their first two years.

“It was really Dr. Stow who instigated it,” Bischoff said. “We had him during our freshman and sophomore years and had talked about wanting to go further in history. He knew that we had a lot of credits [from high school AP classes] and so he suggested doing it. Credit-wise we were over a year ahead, so he encouraged us to do it because he figured out a way we could actually finish by the time we were graduating.”

“Sarah was able to complete this extremely rigorous program not only because she is an extremely bright and gifted student, but also because she is an exceptionally hard-working and diligent student,” said Stow. “Both Sarah and Anthony had to take courses in subsequent summers in order to earn enough graduate credits to earn the degree.”

To complete her Master’s, Bischoff took one graduate course during each semester her junior year, two in her first semester senior year, and then three in her final semester.

“It was definitely challenging,” she said. “There’s no comparison between undergraduate history courses and the graduate ones. It’s a completely different style with the relationship between the teacher and students. Many are actually adults, working or teaching in the Philadelphia area.”

It probably didn’t make things any easier that Bischoff was extremely involved in student activities at La Salle. In addition to working at the library her final three years, Bischoff also served as the manager of the basketball team, a Day One host, a Resident Assistant and a member of both the Honors Board and the Resident Student Association (for which she was treasurer during her senior year). While doing all this, she still managed to maintain a 3.7 GPA.

“I’m not going to say it was easy, but if you want something enough, you’ll do what you need to do to get everything done,” she said.

A native of Troy, NY, Bischoff will be moving out to her new home away from home in mid-August, and although she has only lived in the Northeast, she’s not that worried about her upcoming shift into the unknown.

“From what I’ve experienced it is a bit different down there, but the students that go to Rice for history alone are from all over,” she said. “Texas, the eastern seaboard, they’re from everywhere, so it’s not as if I’ll be an oddity.” 

At her future home away from home, Bischoff will also be studying a slightly different topic: the U.S. South in the 19th Century, which is the focus of Rice’s program (it’s also the home of the Jefferson Davis papers). Although she admits she knows “next to nothing about southern history unless it’s in relation to the north,” Bischoff said she is excited for the opportunity to learn a new viewpoint.

“I want to study it because that perspective is lacking in Northern institutions, and I would like to gain that perspective to supplement what I’ve already learned,” said Bischoff.

In the long-run, Bischoff is hoping to take that three-dimensional perspective and offer it to students as a college professor. Although she likes the idea of coming back to the east coast, she knows that might be impossible.

“My long-term goal is to become a professor, and so while I’d like to come back, I understand I may not be able to,” she said. “I have done some traveling to get the education, so I imagine I’ll be pretty open to going anywhere.”

-- Frank Visco