For Coastal Carolina University alum Alexis Widdifield ’15, the path to graduate school started with just a hunch. She’d been out of college for five years and found herself still thinking about those archaeology classes she took as an undergrad, so she decided to contact her former mentor Carolyn Dillian, chair/professor in the Department of Anthropology and Geography.

One year later, Widdifield was giving a scholarly presentation at the Archaeological Society of South Carolina on ceramic artifacts excavated at Brookgreen Gardens. Next step: a law degree specializing in advocacy for Native American tribes.

Widdifield’s story, one of general curiosity and interest that blossomed into focused dedication, is representative of the experience of CCU’s Master of Arts in Liberal StudiesThe award-winning program touts itself as interdisciplinary, customized, and flexible, and Widdifield’s experience justifies those claims.

“Going into it, I was just interested in getting back into academia and seeing what’s out there,” said Widdifield. “I didn’t really have a particular goal in mind. I talked to Dr Schmidt [coordinator of the MA in Liberal Studies and chair/professor in the Department of Languages and Intercultural Studies] about the MALS program, and we collectively decided on a plan centered around archaeology.” 

Several classes, two field schools, and one graduate assistantship later, Widdifield is sharing the stage with academic researchers. Her  scholarly presentation demonstrates a classic goal of graduate study: to allow students to hone in on research, creating new knowledge in the field of their choice by building on the work of other scholars. 

Titled “Using pXRF to Source Ceramic Artifacts: Low-Fired Earthenware from Brookgreen,” Widdifield’s project was an extension of research conducted in 2018 by Dillian and David Palmer, CCU assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology and Geography. Dillian and Palmer had researched the origin of bricks at Brookgreen Gardens by testing them against clay samples from various deposits on the property. Widdifield researched a similar premise, focusing on ceramic vessels and using an x-ray fluorescence spectrometer in the anthropology and geography lab at CCU. 

“In this new study,” wrote Widdifield in the abstract to her presentation, ”I found that the composition of the low-fired earthenware ceramics was consistent with a different, distinct clay deposit that is also at Brookgreen Gardens but completely separate from the deposit that matched the bricks. This clear distinction between the clay chemical signatures is a testament to the future use of x-ray fluorescence analysis for sourcing ceramic artifacts.”

In the MA in Liberal Arts program, Widdifield has benefitted not only from classes and research projects, but also from relationships with her professors and mentors. As a graduate assistant, she serves as assistant director for the Jackson Family Center for Ethics and Values under Director David Holiday.

“The suggestion of doing the MALS program seemed like a good idea,” said Widdifield, “but it’s been great, actually. It’s been my dream.”

“Just through talking with my advisors and doing that job as well, I’ve found more interest in the cultural resource management side of anthropology,” said Widdifield. “I still love archaeology, but cultural resource management is more of a legal area of anthropology, more present-day issues, and it’s made me become really interested in that area.”

Her plan for law school ties her interests together.

“With certification to be an attorney, I’d like to be a legal advocate in some way for Native American tribes seeking federal recognition.”

Widdifield’s experience demonstrates how a little background knowledge combined with a spark of curiosity and faculty/mentor guidance brings MA in Liberal Studies students face-to-face with brand-new career opportunities.

“The suggestion of doing the MALS program seemed like a good idea,” said Widdifield, “but it’s been great, actually. It’s been my dream.”