Sarah Cowan is adorned with Una's necklace by Rosemary Joyce, Graduate Division associate dean. (photo: Ellen Gobler)
Sarah Cowan is adorned with Una’s necklace by Rosemary Joyce, Graduate Division associate dean. (photo: Ellen Gobler)

Sarah Cowan has, according to one of her professors, “an almost visceral commitment to scholarly inquiry.  Another professor says she’s “one of those luminous students who leaves a deep impression on all those who know, teach, and learn from her.”

They said these things in support of her nomination as a recipient of the Una Fellowship, one of the more unusual and historic forms of graduate support on this campus.  She won.

Cowan is a Ph.D. candidate in Art History.  As an undergrad here, earning her B.A. in 2011, she was valedictorian in her department’s commencement and received highest honors on her senior thesis, which explored resources and human populations in Buckminster Fuller’s World Game (a solution-oriented alternative to war games).

Although from a small high school in Kentucky that was not academically oriented, she applied to top colleges around the country, utilizing “a tenacity and hunger than overshadowed fear, uncertainty, and perhaps common sense.”  She came to UC Berkeley on a scholarship, studied hard, and for a number of years managed ReUSE, the campus waste-reduction program, and became very active in the campus arts community. Soon after graduation, she was hired as lead researcher for an SFMOMA exhibition on Buckminster Fuller, opening unexplored ways of thinking about this pivotal figure.

After she completes her graduate studies, Cowan plans an academic career than includes curatorial opportunities.

Cowan formally received the 2012-2013 Una Fellowship at a ceremony that has become one of the campus’s hallowed traditions. Over dinner, an ornate vintage necklace that belonged to Una was placed around the neck of Cowan, who wore it only for the evening, while enjoying a pleasant meal with representatives of the Graduate Division and mentors and close associates from her academic department.

Una Smith Ross
Una as a young woman, wearing her necklace.

The Una Fellowship is given each year to an outstanding woman graduate student in the field of history at Berkeley to “foster the spirit of inquiry and individuality” so characteristic of the woman for whom the fellowship is named, Una Smith Ross.

Una Smith Ross studied history at Berkeley during the presidency of Benjamin Ide Wheeler, the last UC chief executive to regularly navigate the campus on horseback (and probably the last to teach Sanskrit, Gothic, and Balto-Slavic). She earned her B.A. in 1911 and her M.A. in 1913. In her memory, her husband, Edward Hunter Ross, donated the funds for the fellowship, and attended the award’s dinner-ceremony numerous times during his lifetime.