As a scholarship soccer player also working part time, Bianca Passalacqua Thon, a 2019–20 Bridge Scholar at the University of Chicago, already had to think creatively to find time for her schoolwork as a student at the University of Puerto Rico (UPR). As if getting good grades were not already enough, the idea that she needed to carve out time to start planning for her life after college was hardly short of wishful thinking. In fact, testifying to her jam-packed schedule was the scale of the event that arrived her junior year that paused her life and finally let her consider her situation more broadly.
“Hurricane Maria broke the island,” she says. “Everything stopped. We spent our days walking in search of food and water. But that disruption from my routine is what it took for me to start thinking about my future—or to start worrying about it actually. There’s no master’s or PhD program in art history at any university in Puerto Rico.”
Bianca choosing to pursue art history was not in question. Having grown up in a family where talk of politics and history was second nature, she had started out at UPR intending to major in political science. But she never felt especially inspired by her classes until she branched out and took as an elective an introductory course in art history focused on the ancients.
“Once I stepped into the classroom, I knew there was no going back,” she says. “In a way I’d never experienced with an academic subject before, I felt at home and I knew I could be that person who translates history into the present.”
After taking a couple more classes in art history, she was able to refine her goals further. It was not ancient art that primarily interested her but the modern history of art. In particular, she became interested in understanding what it means that human beings pass art objects down through time. She was interested in why objects get collected and how they acquire value and also in the people and institutions who collect them and give them that value.
“I was interested in the reasons behind why certain countries have museums filled with the cultural artifacts that highlight the progress of human civilizations, and other countries struggle with keeping their museums' budgets justified,” she says. “In Puerto Rico, for instance, we’ve been struggling to open and maintain our National Gallery. The cause for both facts is rooted in colonialism.”
“In a sense,” she adds, “it’s what I was interested in all along. I’m studying history—in this case art history—and the power dynamics that have shaped that history, while I’m also investigating the disciplinary lens through which that history gets viewed. I love being in a classroom and discussing works of art, but I also love discussing the outside forces that have led us to find these particular questions important in the first place.”
"I love being in a classroom and discussing works of art, but I also love discussing the outside forces that have led us to find these particular questions important in the first place.”
As her senior year at UPR approached, she realized she had to start making plans to achieve her goals. Having been taught mostly by professors who were educated in Europe, she looked for graduate programs there first. She knew the cost would be prohibitive and the chances of finding a job to pay her expenses unlikely given her non-EU nationality.
Beginning to despair of being held back by reason of where she was from, it was her extremely good fortune that a professor of hers told her about the University of Chicago Bridge Scholarship program, an award granting one year of full tuition to graduates of Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Hispanic-Serving Institutions. She knew it was an opportunity she could not pass up no matter how unlikely her chances of being accepted.
“Honestly, I tried not to think about it or get my hopes up,” she says. “I had researched the faculty and seen that, if I got accepted, I’d be learning from the people who’d written the papers I’d read as an undergrad. The idea was a little overwhelming,”
It was a feeling that, amid the tremendous joy that came with learning she had been accepted, did not entirely abate. Bianca had never been to the United States and she didn not have any family or friends living there, which meant she did not really know what she was heading into. In fact, the only person she knew on arriving was a fellow Bridge Scholar from Puerto Rico. Having made contact over the internet before arriving, they had rented an apartment together in the Woodlawn neighborhood.
“My biggest fear was being a Latin American student,” she says. “I was reading the news and trying to understand what it would mean for me. I worried I wouldn’t be welcomed. I also worried that the type of postcolonial approach to art history I’d come to love while at UPR wouldn’t be practiced or accepted.”
Rather than having the opportunity once she arrived to carefully assess all the ways her expectations were and were not met by reality, Bianca was thrown into a whirl of activity. She had to furnish her apartment, learn how to get around a new city in a new country, and find a job, while also making important decisions about what classes to take.
And she was doing something else too. She was preparing her applications for art history PhD programs.
“I don’t think things started to settle down for me until I learned that I was accepted into the PhD program at UChicago,” she says. “Once the excitement from that died down a little, that’s when I was finally able to take a step back and acknowledge that this would be my home for years to come. It was also when I started thinking about my place at the University and the sort of space I occupy here.”
“I don’t think things started to settle down for me until I learned that I was accepted into the PhD program at UChicago. Once the excitement from that died down a little, that’s when I was finally able to take a step back and acknowledge that this would be my home for years to come. It was also when I started thinking about my place at the University and the sort of space I occupy here.”
Bianca likens that space to one occupied by the German artist Hannah Höch, who worked in the Dadaist tradition pioneering the art form known as photomontage in 1920s Berlin. Having first encountered Höch’s work while a student at UPR, Bianca was immediately drawn to her, and she anticipates that Höch and artists like her will be a focus of her research as a PhD student.
“Hannah Höch had access to one of the most intriguing European avant-garde movements, to which she was also a kind of outsider,” Bianca says. “Through her work within the Western tradition, she highlighted the subordinate position of women within that tradition, while also offering a critique of the ethnographic objects appropriated by that tradition and included in museums. Her life and work model how it’s possible to remain an outsider while also having a voice heard on the inside.”
For Bianca, that is part of her central challenge as a Puerto Rican not just at the University of Chicago, but in the United States as well. The line between actively taking part and feeling effaced can sometimes be a fine one, and she is careful to stay mindful of it. At the same time, she is quick to admit that she is still figuring it all out and gaining new perspective all the time. Only now finishing up her second quarter, she sees her time at the University as just getting started.
“I’m tremendously excited to pursue my PhD here,” she says. “I say it out loud and I still hardly believe it. I have so much I’m looking forward to.”