Natalie Krauss had the privilege marshaling her fellow graduates into the Mark Twain Athletic Center earlier this month during the first of two commencement ceremonies for the University of Missouri–St. Louis College of Arts and Sciences.
It was not a trivial honor for Krauss, who graduated summa cum laude with bachelor’s degrees in history and English, a minor in French and a certificate from the Pierre Laclede Honors College and this fall will start a PhD program in Medieval European History at Saint Louis University.
“I feel like being a student marshal was the closest thing I could get to being recognized as the top of my class,” she said. “For me, it was the cherry on top, the icing on the cake, that proved that I did my absolute best.”
Interim Dean Frank Grady selected her for the esteemed role because of her academic accomplishments. But he couldn’t have realized how much it meant to Krauss, who found her way back to higher education after failing more than a decade earlier when she first entered right after high school.
Krauss, originally an interior design major, had spent the intervening years bouncing around jobs as a waitress and bartender and living for brief spell in Portland, Oregon, before returning St. Louis and her Midwestern roots.
She reached the point in 2020 where she decided to return to school, enrolling in one class part-time just before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’ve always been, in my mind, an academic,” Krauss said. “I’ve always loved reading and learning. I’d been serving, I’d been bartending, and no one around me was really doing anything that I thought was something ‘Great.’ I had conversations with my fiancé and my mom, and they both encouraged me to do something that I was better suited for than hospitality and service.
“I was also in a very privileged situation where my fiancé is an entrepreneur, and he flat out told me go do something in school that I would love doing. I think that that put me in a really unique situation to just throw my cards up and see where they landed. It’s been an extremely rewarding situation.”
She has never felt out of place as a nontraditional student at UMSL, which has long attracted many older students with a variety of life experiences. She received multiple scholarships to help support her on her academic journey including the Dennis Bohnenkamp Scholarship, Eugene J. Meehan Scholarship, George Dewey Ross Memorial Scholarship, James M. Clark Scholarship, Pierre Laclede Honors College Leadership Council Scholarship and the Promise and Opportunity Scholarship.
Krauss started out as an English major and thought she could use that degree as a springboard into a career as a librarian. She’s gotten a taste of what that could be like while working as a special collections assistant at the St. Louis Mercantile Library.
She landed that position after taking an Honors College course taught by Assistant Teaching Professor Rob Wilson. One day in class, she and her fellow students toured the Mercantile and had a chance to examine some of its historic artifacts in its collection. Krauss noticed a student intern working in the library, and she pulled her aside at the end of their tour.
“How do I do what you’re doing?” Krauss asked her.
The student connected her to Sara Hodge, a special collections librarian and the Herman T. Pott National Inland Waterways Library curator. Krauss explained her goals, and Hodge helped create an undergraduate internship for her. She’s gotten experience doing archival work at the library.
Krauss had been looking for ways she might make herself more marketable after college, so she wound up adding a second major in history after two semesters of study. She soon realized through her history courses and others on English literature before 1780, that history was where her true passion lay.
From a young age, Krauss had been especially taken with the Middle Ages, whether it was reading the King Arthur stories or watching every adaptation of Robin Hood she could get her hands on. She counts Kevin Costner’s turn as the heroic outlaw from 1991 as her favorite movie.
“I’m always fascinated by how removed that time period seems and the connotation of the ‘Dark Ages,’” she said. “But the more I learned about it through high school and college, they were anything but dark. The sort of paradoxical notion of them – that they somehow thrived through so much adversity – that whole concept has really always spoken to me, more so than other time periods, because no other time periods really have that dark connotation on them.”
Krauss had a chance to see some of the remarkable art and architecture created during that time when she visited France last summer as part of UMSL’s study abroad program in Strasbourg. Among the notable sites was Strasbourg’s famed cathedral, completed in 1439.
The trip to France was in some ways an extension of a course she took in Medieval Art History, brought to life. Krauss credits that course and its professor, Maureen Quigley from the Department of Art and Design, for rekindling her interest in medieval times and convincing her to pursue a PhD in medieval history.
Quigley was also the one who told her to give serious consideration to the program at Saint Louis University. It is noted throughout the Midwest for its Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies and an annual symposium in the specialty, and Krauss liked the community of faculty members and budding historians she met while researching the program and applying.
Krauss is headed to SLU with a full assistantship for six years. She believes she had a leg up landing that position because of her academic success at UMSL and the strong recommendation letters she had from Grady, Hodge and Wilson. She knows it didn’t hurt that she’s also done some volunteer work at SLU’s Vatican Film Library, a research collection for medieval and Renaissance manuscript studies. She secured that opportunity with help from John Neal Hoover, the Mercantile Library’s endowed executive director.
She is grateful for the relationships she’s built with so many faculty and staff members at UMSL and the support they’ve provided to help her pursue her goals.
“I think the faculty that decide to teach here are already invested in the futures and the success of the students,” Krauss said. “UMSL provides all of us with not just a really good education but also a massive support system. Those faculty members that I mentioned before, they have quite literally held me up. They’re the reason that I am where I am right now.”
Krauss knows her own maturity – intellectually and emotionally – during more than a decade away from higher education also left her in a much better position to excel at UMSL.
“When I went to school before, it was out of a sense of obligation,” she said. “Everyone else that I knew was going off to school. There was pressure from my family because I’m the only one that graduated high school on time of me and my siblings. I was quote-unquote the ‘golden child’ where I was going to go off and make myself into something. But now I’m invested in my education. It’s a serious thing, so I think coming back as an adult, I really see it as something that I’m going to get out what I put in. I think my age and my maturing is a key factor in how successful I’ve been at UMSL.”