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Keene State Grad Blends Studies to Design Her Own Degree and Lands Her Dream Job

Joanna Oko ‘15
Joanna Oko ‘15

Keene State College educates students for life and for careers that extend far beyond one major field of study. Joanna Oko ‘15 designed her own major in humanitarian studies and now works at The Auschwitz Institute in New York City, in addition to pursuing a master’s degree in sociology.

“I came into Keene State as a journalism major because I wanted to focus on human stories,” said Joanna. Halfway into her first semester, she realized her journalism classes weren’t quite the right fit, so she explored other course offerings the following term, one of which was introduction to Holocaust and genocide studies.

“It’s funny because I had grown up learning about the Holocaust because my family is from Poland. So, I was exposed to that narrative and history throughout my childhood, but I wanted to learn more,” she said. After talking with her professors, Joanna decided to merge the genocide portion of the Holocaust & genocide studies major with sociology and political science to create a major that suited her needs.

“I was most interested in the idea of human experience and their behaviors and dynamics, and how that could be applied in understanding atrocity prevention. I’m really grateful that I was at a place like Keene State that had the resources and opportunities for me to create my own path, in addition to so many supportive professors,” said Joanna.

After graduation, Jim Waller, Cohen professor of Holocaust and genocide studies, helped Joanna land an internship at The Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation, a nonprofit dedicated to mass atrocity prevention through education and training programs for government officials. The internship led to a staff position, which she does while completing a master’s in sociology at Southern Connecticut State University.

“In my master’s work, I’m very focused on the education aspect as it pertains to students and teachers,” she said. “My thesis is an extension my Keene State senior project, but more focused and in-depth. I’m looking at the education system and how we can incorporate mass atrocity prevention education into our current structure by analyzing how we teach native American history.”

Joanna is equally inspired by her work at The Auschwitz Institute. “We run a seminar in Poland where we invite government officials from around the world to Auschwitz. Every time I’m there and I witness these people in that space for the first time – it’s unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. It gives me hope to see people in a position to make a difference in the world experience it.”

A Keene State College education led Joanna to embrace her love of learning and her love of questioning the world because she was taught to think critically and engage with peers and mentors alike. Her biggest piece of advice for students is to be open-minded and to explore. “I think it’s natural to stray from the path you initially thought you were going to take. It’s natural for your mind to change, because inevitably you’re going to be exposed to different things and they are going to fuel you in different ways. Explore within yourself and discover what fuels your passions.”

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