period studying the first humans to walk the western hemisphere? The answer to this question is complicated and it unfolds like the plot of an adventure movie.
Brana-Shute was born into an Italian family, with a father who had come to America in an attempt to escape serving in the Italian army under Mussolini. Her parents then settled in a small town in New York where she spoke nothing but Italian until the age of five.
"I didn't fit anyone's mold," she recalls. As the first one of her family born in this country, she later went on to become the first to go to college, and later, the first to receive a Ph.D. "I always loved history, until I went to college. Then I decided I really hated history because they made us memorize all of these dates."
In the cinematic story of her life, she made the decision to change majors, focusing on Spanish literature and theatre, which brings us to her love of Latin American culture. This love and fascination propelled Brana-Shute to Puerto Rico, where, as a Lehigh University students, she taught in a slum with no blackboards, no books, or anything else that any American teacher would have as standard. Moreover, she says, half the class spoke no English- and the other half had migrated from New York and spoke no Spanish.
"I was so naive," Brana-Shute says. "This experience changed by life."
From Puerto Rico she would return to Lehigh University and to better understand the cultural experience she had in the Caribbean, her path crossed with a professor of Latin American history with whom she studied. When he took a job at Adelphi University in New York, he invited her to come with him as a student assistant. Brana-Shute headed back to her New York and also to history: her original area of avoidance. She received a master's degree in history, but continued studying Latin American literature.
"It just goes to show you, you think you know where you're going, but forget it," she says. "Tell God what you intend to do and he laughs at you." Her incessant need to learn more proved this to be true. After receiving a full scholarship to the University of Florida, Brana-Shute entered into a Ph.D. program there, studying 20th century history there. At Florida, she would meet an anthropologist who would later become her husband.
She says they shared the same interests. "We liked learning things, traveling," she says. She says a Ford Foundation fellowship for her husband to Guyana fell through because of bad political relations between the U.S. and the South American country. So they, instead, went "next door" to Suriname, a small country on the northern coast. "There I was, speaking Italian and Spanish, ending up in a colony that speaks Dutch and Surinamese Creole, it was really nuts," she says.
Brana-Shute and her husband soon picked up Creole from the kids on the street but, in order to learn more about the culture, she began speaking with the female elders in the community. "I was very interested in politics and because of the way the society was divided, he spent his time with men and I spent my time with women," she says.
After spending a year there, political problems in Suriname erupted and the Ford Foundation granted Brana-Shute and her husband funds to stay for a second year. They spent the remainder of their stay like in-the-field reporters. They were even tear gassed during one confrontation.
After that, the newlyweds headed back to Florida, where, again, Brana-Shute shifted her focus to 18th and 19th century history. It was perhaps the first hand experience of that political turmoil and disruption that got her more interested in the background of what she had seen. She wanted to know what the events were that lead up to that state of conflict and so she began her research in an earlier time period.
Brana-Shute found it necessary to travel to Holland where she learned 18th century Dutch in order for her to be able to read documents of Suriname so that she would be able to write a dissertation on 18th and very early 19th century slavery in Suriname.
Before coming to the College of Charleston, Brana-Shut worked as an editor and did some "exciting" consulting work with the U.S. State Department in the Caribbean. She met former president Jimmy Carter when she was an election observer in Jamaica.
"I went into academics because I thought I could spend a lot of time reading and talking with people about great thoughts," she says.
Along with grading papers and attending department and committee meetings, the College of Charleston allows her to do that. According to Brana-Shute, as a teacher you get to stay a student, always learning something new, "and that is the best part," she adds.
Dr. Rosemary Brana-Shute is happy to have fallen into the field of history after all. She says, "The more you know, I think the better you're able to make decisions and history helps you do that." She tells students, "You have to have a sense of wonder about the world- to want to see things, to want to taste things."
She strongly believes that that travel and learning in other countries is a powerful education.
We can expect to hear about more adventures from this dynamic teacher in the near future, despite losing her husband two years ago.
"Life is so incredibly short and you don't know how short yours is going to be and so what I would like to do in the next five years is to be in India, and in China because I've never been to the Far East," she says.