Skip to main content
Skip to navigation
University of Missouri

It’s All Greek

Cancer survivor and classics major first in family to graduate.

Jaclyn Herr

Jaclyn Herr, a classics and English major, will be the first in her family to graduate from college. This fall, she is starting a doctoral program at Boston University in classical studies with an emphasis on Greek tragedy. Photo by Rachel Coward.

If it weren’t for a scheduling conflict, Jaclyn Herr probably wouldn’t have ever studied Greek, let alone become a two-time winner of the LaBrunerie Greek Prize, recognizing her as the best undergraduate in classical studies at MU.

The first week of Herr’s freshman year, she was enrolled in a Spanish course. Realizing it didn’t suit her, she logged onto myZou to check out her options. The only course that fit her schedule: Greek, taught by Richard Foley, an assistant professor in the classics department.

Having already missed five days of class, Herr was scared.

I called [Foley] and asked him if I was going to be too far behind,” the House Springs, Mo., native recalls. “He said, ‘I’ll never tell anyone to not take ancient Greek. Can you come to my office right now? I’ll fill you in on everything.’ ”

Now, seven semesters of Greek later, Herr is graduating May 18 with degrees in English and in classics. Her choice to study classics was not an easy one — she went back and forth a few times between focusing on 19th century American literature and Greek tragedies — but she made up her mind after a trip to Greece in summer 2012.

I knew that going to Greece would either solidify that I was going to be a classicist or change my mind,” Herr says. “If I went and saw all these temples and museums and they didn’t just drive me crazy in the best sort of way, then maybe this wasn’t the thing I should do. They drove me crazy in the best sort of way.”

Her study-abroad experience was life changing in more ways than one. After being diagnosed and treated for thyroid cancer her sophomore year, she adopted the motto, “What’s the worst that can happen?”

That summer was very much me finally inhabiting who I had become after dealing with the cancer,” says Herr, who had a thyroidectomy and is now cancer-free. “I did a lot of things I would not have ever dreamed of doing two years before. It was a trip that made me realize the changes that had taken place in my life over the past couple years.”

A first-generation college student, Herr says her parents are excited to come to Columbia to see her walk across the stage at the Mizzou Arena.

When [you are a first-generation college student], the logic is that you’re going to go to college, study science and math and get an engineering job, and become rich,” Herr says. “Not that you’re going to read books and teach somewhere and not be rich. [My parents] have always been supportive, but they’ve always wondered why I’d go to school for 10 years if I wasn’t going to end up loaded at the end of it.”

This fall, Herr is starting a doctoral program at Boston University in classical studies with an emphasis on gender and identity issues in Greek tragedy. Her passion is classics — she won the Classical Association of the Middle West and South Award for Outstanding Accomplishment in Classical Studies in February — but her experiences at MU has her considering going into student affairs, too, to address problems facing first-generation college students.

As much as I love classics and Greek, I think I would like to make that difference somewhere, even if it is just at the school where I will teach.”

What’s the worst that can happen?