Lifelong learner finds personal renaissance

After years of working in the business world, Jennifer Wu earns a doctorate in art history from Carolina.

Jennifer Wu standing in blue dress against greenery.
(submitted photo)

A decade ago, Jennifer Wu reached a point of absolute burnout. For years she had embarked on a career path that she deemed her most “practical” option, working as a business consultant, then as a marketing manager in the pharmaceutical world and, eventually, teaching middle school math.

But all along, Wu knew her job choices didn’t align with her passions.

Raised in New Jersey, Wu grew up with an affinity for art. As a child, she painted and drew, visited museums and dug into art history during her spare time. Wu never imagined she could turn that love of art into a career, let alone flourish in it.

With the support of her husband, with whom she shares a 13-year-old son, Wu mustered the courage to change career directions. The decision was anxiety-inducing at the time, but it has since paid dividends.

Now, 10 years later, Wu will receive a doctorate in art history from UNC-Chapel Hill.

“Pursuing something like this, it’s really out of passion, something that I love to do,” Wu said. “I do love all aspects of it: the art history itself, the research and the teaching. I think all of that has really been something that drives me and keeps me motivated.”

That motivation has been paramount for Wu during a lengthy and, at times, arduous career transition.

The path began in 2013 in Washington, D.C., where Wu still resides with her son and husband. Wu dipped her toes in art history studies by taking undergraduate courses at American University. Before long, Wu earned a merit fellowship for her master’s degree, then began her doctoral program at UNC-Chapel Hill in the fall of 2017.

Balancing her studies with family life hasn’t been easy. Throughout her doctoral program, Wu commuted from an apartment in Chapel Hill to her family’s home in Washington nearly every weekend, making the five-hour drive to ensure she was present with her son.

The commute never impeded her studies. Rather, Wu earned a slew of fellowships and accolades during her time at Carolina. Wu is a Caroline H. and Thomas S. Royster Fellow and received fellowships and grants from the Paul Mellon Centre, the Yale Center for British Art, the Harvard Art Museums and the Folger Institute.

Wu’s studies focused on early modern art in Europe, a highly creative period that encompasses the Renaissance. Her research — as well as her dissertation — homed in on British art history and Tudor portraiture in the 16th century.

“There’s just something about that time that seems pivotal in terms of how we think about art,” Wu said. “Art was redefined during that period. There was a certain optimism about what artists could do and what their purpose was.”

In the past decade, Wu has experienced her own kind of renaissance.

Wu’s time at Carolina kindled a deeper love for teaching, as she was able to teach courses on multiple subjects, including an interdisciplinary Royster first-year seminar on perceptions of the human body throughout history.

Back in Washington full-time, Wu is a teaching adjunct at American University, and she has plans to publish articles and perhaps books in the future.

“I’m a firm believer in lifelong education,” Wu said. “I don’t think our education should end in our early 20s. Having this opportunity at UNC is something that I’m very grateful for because it allowed me to continue to study and to learn, and it’s not limited to something that I did a couple of decades ago.”