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Making connections, uncovering gifts: Marian Strobel receives James H. Smart Award

Marian Strobel, Department of History

Last updated February 14, 2023

By Tina Underwood

Marian Strobel’s philosophy is simple. Love your subject matter; love your kids. This mindset is probably why the William Montgomery Burnett Professor of History was so taken aback when Cothran Center for Vocational Reflection envoys Liz Smith and Rolyn Rollins, balloons in tow, announced that she’d been selected to receive the James H. Smart Award. The award recognizes those who go above and beyond toward encouraging vocational exploration and reflection in students’ lives.

“I was stunned,” Strobel said, “I didn’t think I’d done anything special.”

But others would disagree.

Numerous alumni, parents and fellow faculty members wrote to express why the 41-year Furman University veteran should receive the prize named for longtime history professor (1967-1995) Jim Smart – colleague and mentor of Strobel’s for 14 years.

Among the accolades is one from student turned faculty member Courtney Tollison ’99, Furman’s Distinguished University Public Historian and Scholar.

“I would not be teaching history at Furman without Marian Strobel,” Tollison said. “I took ‘Women in US History’ my sophomore year. Her engaging teaching style, gift for storytelling, and her genuine concern for students drew me in.”

Tollison’s undergraduate advisor, Strobel guided her through the graduate school process as she does for so many, “advocating passionately for them and writing the best recommendation letters,” Tollison wrote. After successfully defending her dissertation, Tollison came to campus to tell her mentor the good news. ‘Congratulations! Do you want a job?’ Strobel replied.

Strobel’s unwavering allyship for students is not lost on parents. Clinical psychologist and Tollison’s father, David C. Tollison, wrote, “Marian ignited in Courtney a passion for history,” and “when Marian became a mentor to Courtney, it was a role she took on for life.”

Furman trustee and alumna Yendelela Neely Holston ’03, partner and chief diversity and inclusion officer at Kilpatrick Townsend and Stockton LLP, said, “Dr. Strobel epitomizes the experience Furman desires for each student – a caring, engaged, phenomenal professor committed to each student’s development both personally and intellectually.”

Savita Nair, the Gordon Poteat Professor of Asian Studies and director of the women’s, gender, and sexuality studies program, related stories about Strobel’s impact as a mentor in her own career and her compassion for students.

Riley Hughes ’22, a postbaccalaureate fellow who triple majored in psychology, Africana studies, and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies, found herself without parents her junior year following the death of her mother due to cancer, and her father passing when she was 4.

Under the crushing weight of funeral arrangements, and the stress of juggling insurance companies, lawyers and banks, not to mention the emotional toll of losing a parent, Hughes was buoyed by “Team Riley” made up of Strobel, Nair and Lynne Shackelford, now emeritus professor of English. Together, they waded through the details and made calls on Hughes’s behalf.

It’s those kinds of connections that are most meaningful to Strobel, who recently received word that Hughes had been accepted to a specialized post-graduate program at the University of Michigan. “I’m just thrilled for her,” Strobel said.

Strobel spoke about helping students weigh options such as what major to pursue, internships, graduate school and the like. “Sometimes it’s a matter of asking the right questions – what are your hopes and dreams?” she mused.

One student in particular, Tomiko Brown-Nagin ’92, couldn’t decide between a history Ph.D. and law school, Strobel remembers. “I said, ‘Apply to both and see what happens.’ Well, she ended up getting both a Ph.D. and J.D.” Brown-Nagin is a professor of law and history at Harvard University.

“My sense is you have to have a passion for something. And that, I think, is a great gift,” Strobel added.

She should know, as it’s clear in her nearly 50 years of teaching, Strobel has found hers.

Quincy Mix ’19 described Strobel as “something of a legend in the history department.” Mix, operations advisor at New York- based Sloane and Company, noted Strobel’s artful way of using history’s “flawed men and women” to teach students how to be “measured, balanced and compassionate” surveyors of the past. “She invited us to consider what virtues and strengths to cultivate in ourselves as we work to understand our own times and meet the needs of a struggling world,” he wrote.

Mix recounted how generous Strobel was with her time outside of class, lending an ear and lifting confidence when doubts crept in.

“As a professor, scholar and professional trailblazer, she is inspiring,” Mix wrote. “She is a true model of grit, tenacity, gravitas and down-to-earth common sense for all who want to think seriously about their lives and chuckle along the way.

“Dr. Strobel has been a blessing to me. To know and learn from her has been an incredible honor, and Furman would not be the same without her and the amazing lifetime of service she has given to students.”

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