Magdalene Zier

Photo by Holly Hernandez

Magdalene Zier ’08 exemplifies the lifelong love of learning we hope to instill in all of our graduates. Following her time at VCS, Magdalene attended the Ethical Culture Fieldston School and completed her undergraduate studies at Harvard University, where, rather than focusing on just one subject, Magdalene pursued an interdisciplinary course of study through Harvard’s application-only History and Literature program.

After graduating summa cum laude from Harvard, Magdalene spent two years working at the NAACP as the Analyst for Executive Policy and Projects, where she continued to nurture her interdisciplinary interests by serving on a number of smaller taskforces, using her historical background to advocate for voting rights, LGBT rights and other issues. Magdalene's experience at the NAACP convinced her that she could contribute more meaningfully to civil rights causes with a law degree, which led her to Stanford University’s Knight-Hennessy Scholars program, through which she is currently earning a dual J.D. and Ph.D. in History.

VCS: How did you find this Knight-Hennessy Scholars joint degree program? It seems like you were in the inaugural cohort. 

MZ: That’s been an awesome part of my time here. The joint degree itself is independent; it’s not necessarily a formal program in the way that a lot of schools have a J.D./M.B.A. My combination is a little more improvised or figure-it-out-as-you-go, but Stanford is especially committed to supporting interdisciplinary study. So that was one of the things that drew me to Stanford, and this Knight-Hennessy program in its first year. Our inaugural cohort was composed of 50 students from all across the graduate schools, half of whom are international. And the program has grown steadily in the two years since. It’s been a great way to get to know people from outside of my law and history bubbles, to make friends that are doing material engineering, or doing applied math or are in medical school. We have all sorts of various events, some of which are just social and many of which are focused on building our own leadership skills and building connections with leaders at Stanford and beyond. 

VCS: Is there anything you can remember from your time as VCS that may have sparked something in you that has really put you on this path that you are on?

MZ: When people ask, “how did you come to this dual degree, or these interests,” I really do owe a lot of credit to VCS and the way that it sets up its curriculum. I think the way that VCS teaches Social Studies showed me the importance of always considering history’s counter-narrative and approaching problems from an interdisciplinary perspective. 

One of the reasons I’ve decided to come to Stanford’s History Department is it’s a particularly small and warm group of people, and they actually do their own sort of inter-aging in the way that the cohort is designed. So you take your core curriculum classes with the cohorts above and below you – while you’re not necessarily older or younger than the other cohort, it’s a similar principle to what I grew up with [at VCS], so I am very comfortable with it and I’m excited to see it play out in grad school. 

VCS: You mentioned drama and I know you were really interested in theater. Did you do theater during your time at VCS at all?

MZ: Yes, actually it began in the 5/6s when [the Upper School] did Fiorello! the musical. I was just so obsessed with this spectacle of the musical and that was a foundational moment for me. Because of that, some of my friends and I did after school theater with Kid City Theater at the 13th Street Rep for years and then come middle school we participated in the VCS shows. I really have no performing talent whatsoever…but I think VCS’s general artsy opportunities and getting to do crafty projects allowed me to see other ways to get involved in theater. So at Harvard I was President of the theater organization; I was doing a lot of producing and logistical work but I also did a lot of costume design, set building and even puppet design on one show. VCS’s theater program – and Woodshop! – prepared me well. 

VCS: Did your interest in social justice start to develop at VCS, or was that something that came later? 

MZ: I owe VCS and the broader Greenwich Village community for inspiring my commitment to social justice. Together, they showed me the many possible ways to contribute to a movement, whether through protest, policy, painting, poetry, etc. My daily commute to VCS took me past the homes of Eleanor Roosevelt, Emma Lazarus and the Stonewall Inn. Those lessons definitely influenced my choice of senior thesis project in college, looking at the role of theater in the anti-lynching movement. And those lessons also speak to why it's so important for young people to get involved. The means through which I hope to contribute to social justice efforts – law and history – are necessarily pretty old. But I think efforts for change are most effective when they're interdisciplinary and intergenerational. 

VCS: What would your advice be for a VCS student who is interested in pursuing social justice work?

MZ: I would encourage VCS students to get involved in a neighborhood service effort, wherever is local to them, to get to learn more about their community leaders and practice working as a team.