A little-known Russian outpost on the northern coast of California led Catherine Trainor on a fascinating journey, one that enabled her to discover several previously unrecognized talents, and culminated in a brilliantly scripted, professionally produced documentary for her senior Independent Study project.
A history major with minors in Russian studies and physics, Trainor came to Wooster four years ago from Piedmont, Calif.; the first Piedmont High School graduate, she believes, ever to attend the college.
Her original intent was to major in chemistry, but after taking Madonna Hettinger’s Western Civilization class as a sophomore, and then participating in Wooster’s Summer in Tuscany program, Trainor was moved in a new direction. “That experience really changed my perspective,” she says. “I knew at that point that I wanted to major in history.”
What was it that brought Trainor from coastal California to rural Ohio? “I came here to see Kenyon,” she says, “but I decided to stop in at Wooster and just loved it. I got that ‘feeling’ when I stepped out of the car that this was the place for me.”
Trainor’s sister, Margaret, experienced that same ‘feeling’ two years later. She, too, chose Wooster and is now a sophomore majoring in history. “She came to visit me a few years ago and had the same reaction that I did,” says Trainor. “We’re very close, and we have really enjoyed our time together here.”
As a child, Trainor had heard bits and pieces about Fort Ross, a Russian settlement about 90 miles north of San Francisco. She learned more about it while studying abroad in Russia as a junior, and that furthered her curiosity.
The fort was established by a group of Russian explorers who came to California in the early 1800s, in part, to provide grain for their fellow countrymen who were starving at a settlement in Sitka, Alaska. The land is now a state park, where the interior of the fort has been reconstructed and the original rooms have been replicated.
“It is a remote but beautiful location,” says Trainor, who decided to make the fort the subject of her senior I.S. But instead of writing a traditional thesis, she chose a more challenging route, even though she had no prior film experience.
Through her Russian studies courses, Trainor became fluent in the language, and that gave her credibility in conversing with those who had knowledge about the settlement. She quickly developed a network of sources, which enabled her to gather information about the history of the settlement. Then, she says, “the project took on a life of its own.”
At the same time, Trainor began to explore the art of filmmaking. She arranged for access to a camera through Wooster’s Instructional Technology department, which also helped her learn how to use the editing software, Final Cut, with additional instruction from the president of Wooster’s film club.
She obtained financial support through the Copeland Fund for Independent Study, which enabled her to travel to California to interview archaeologists with the California State Park System and the University of California, Berkeley. She was also able to go to Canada, where she met with historians from the University of Toronto and York University, many of whom are leading scholars on the Fort Ross settlement.
Despite Trainor’s lack of filmmaking experience, the final product turned out to be a masterpiece. The composition of the 43-minute film, with its fascinating chronology, is superbly structured; the script flows almost poetically; the selection of music is wonderfully coordinated to sync with the video and stills gleaned from reference materials; and the narration by Richard Figge, emeritus professor of German — with his precise diction, impeccable rhythm, and graceful delivery — rivals that of a PBS special.
“Even though Catherine had no experience with video, she has the kind of independence and determination that made me sure that she would make the most of the opportunity,” says Greg Shaya, associate professor of history and international relations, and Trainor’s advisor for the project. “The final product is excellent: subtle in its historical understanding of the Russian experience, compelling in its narrative style, and arresting in its visuals. I was especially impressed by her initiative. She got to know the folks at Fort Ross and developed a long list of experts in Russian history.”
Trainor presented her research at the Mid-Atlantic Slavic Conference in New York City in March, and she will present again at the Midwest Slavic Conference at Ohio State. Her work was honored as the best digital I.S., and she took home the $1,000 first prize, at Wooster’s Senior Research Symposium.
Next year, she plans to organize a student exchange program between Russia and America in conjunction with the 200th anniversary of Fort Ross.
“I’m hoping to coordinate a 4-5 day conference for Russian and American students,” she says. “I have been asked to prepare a project proposal for the people at Fort Ross, and they are very excited about it.” She will also be meeting with the Russian consulate in San Francisco.
In reflecting on her journey, Trainor is grateful for the support she has received along the way, particularly with her I.S. project. “Wooster gave me all the tools I needed to organize the project and run with it – independently,” she says. “I couldn’t have done this at any other school.”
** Watch the Fort Ross documentary.**
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