Name: Leah Baxter
Hometown: Chattanooga, Tenn.
Major: English, Linguistics, Modern Middle Eastern Studies
Activities: Kelly Writers House, Theater Arts Council (TAC-e), Penn Singers, Penn Glee Club
34th Street Magazine: You’re a triple major in English, linguistics, and modern Middle Eastern studies. What inspired you to pursue these seemingly unrelated disciplines?
Leah Baxter: I’ve been interested in linguistics for a long time. I think that language is really cool, and [I] always want to know a lot more about it. I enjoy learning about it from a technical perspective, but also reading books and literature. So I decided in sophomore year, just, why not do both? They kind of complement one another anyway.
A few years ago, I applied to a scholarship for a study in Arabic. That required me to take some area studies courses about the Middle East. Last spring, I went to Jordan for a study abroad program for language immersion. Because of those things, I kind of ended up [fulfilling] a lot of requirements for a modern Middle Eastern studies major. I talked to the head of the department, and he [told me I was] only four courses away [from the major], so I just picked up a third one.
Street: You’ve been known to voice a rather poignant observation from your studies: analyses within literature and linguistics often focus solely on Western works. What made you come to this conclusion, and how has this influenced your academic pursuits?
LB: Well, it’s kind of impossible to study anything in the Middle East without coming across Orientalism by Edward Said. It's just kind of like a red flag to all people who are studying things related to the Middle East [and] just other cultures in general that’s like, "Hello, these things have been historically represented in really biased, inaccurate, and harmful ways, and y’all need to not do that." That’s kind of a basic thing for studying other cultures, in my opinion. Don’t exoticize it. Don’t be racist about it.
Street: Was there anything in particular that inspired you to take Arabic? Would you say that you’re fluent?
LB: Well, I really like studying languages. I studied Spanish and Latin in high school. I got to Penn, and I was like, "Wow there are so many, I want to take something I don’t know anything about!" I was oscillating between a few, but I ended up picking Arabic just because I was feeling it. It's one of the languages that I was thinking of that [has] the most speakers, [so] I was like, "Why not?" Several years passed, and now I speak Arabic. Because of the immersion program I was in last spring, I am conversational in Arabic fluently.
Street: How did you become involved with the Kelly Writers House, and what do you do for them?
LB: After I had seen it for the first time, I was like, "This is amazing, what a great place to do homework and hangout because it’s just so cozy and nice!" I slowly went there on a daily basis my freshman year—also because they had a constant supply of tea. My freshman year was also marked by the beginning of an obsession with tea, which I retain. Then I applied for a summer job the summer after freshman year, working as part of their recording studio, helping archive their older recordings and such, [and] working on their website of recorded poetry. [I] have worked there for work study ever since, recording things and just generally helping out around their events and activities.
Street: How did you become involved in the theater scene at Penn? And what was your favorite production that you worked on?
LB: I did a lot of theater in high school, and I decided that once I got to Penn I would continue to do it—that it would be fun, it would help me to make friends, and I would enjoy it. Those things have, by and large, been true, so that’s nice.
Penn Singers' The Addams Family in the fall of 2018, I think. It was great.
Street: What drew you to doing specifically sound and design/theater tech?
LB: My mom’s a music teacher, so I played a lot of musical instruments in high school. I somehow ended up in the pit orchestra for [its] production of Les Mis. I was like, "This is incredible—I love it." I got into theater. My first production, nobody really wanted to work as assistant to the professional sound guy they hired—who was super cool and nice—because they wanted to be able to hangout with their friends backstage while doing work. The professional sound guy became a very close friend of mine, and a mentor, and taught me a lot about sound. I became really good at it and I enjoyed it a lot.
I like doing musicals the best because I just really like music. I think that even though I am not a great singer and not a great actor, to be able to do sound for a show is kind of my own part of contributing to that music—to be a conduit for the music itself, even though I’m not singing.
Street: You were studying abroad in Jordan before the pandemic started. What was your favorite part of your travels?
LB: One event that I really loved was when my study abroad program took a trip to Madaba, which is a city in Jordan. It wasn’t actually spring, but it was like that weather that’s after springtime. It was just so beautiful, and I loved being there. I love to travel, and to see things that I have not seen before. It was just really lovely.
Street: What has been your most memorable experience at Penn? What has been the favorite part of your Penn experience?
LB: The thing that I will probably remember and cherish the most about the University of Pennsylvania is probably the time that I was able to spend in the Kelly Writers House, and among [its] community because it's just such a lovely space. It’s just a really positive experience, and a warm and comforting place for me—and I know for a lot of other people. When I was a sophomore, I lived in Harnwell. Every morning I would walk out of Harnwell, and I’d pass the Writers House and I’d [think], “Ah, there’s my home!" Despite having recently departed from the place I actually lived.
Street: If you could impart one lesson on the Penn student body, what would it be?
LB: The best and least awkward way to get to know new people is by inviting them to eat with you.
Street: What’s next for you after Penn?
LB: I would love to travel in the future, but I don’t think now is the time. I really don’t know what I want to do. What I always used to tell people was "When I am old, I want to be able to tell stories about my life to people who upon leaving the conversation say, 'Wow, she had a really interesting life.'"
Street: Last song that you listened to?
LB: "Big Town Banky Blaine's Rockabilly BBQ" by Bear Ghost.
Street: What's something that people wouldn't guess about you?
LB: I feel like I’m kind of an open book. I’ve recently gotten into supernatural bestiaries.
Street: If you were a building on campus, which would you be and why?
LB: I would aspire to be the Kelly Writers House—oh, to be so warm and caring.
Street: Favorite book you've ever read?
LB: If on a winter's night a traveler, by Italo Calvino.
Street: If you could adopt any animal, what would it be?
LB: I just want a cat. I know that’s really simple, but our landlord doesn’t allow pets.
Street: If we weren't in a pandemic right now and you could travel anywhere in the world, where would you first want to go?
LB: I would probably want to go back to Jordan because I don’t deal with lack of closure very well.
Street: There are two types of people at Penn …
LB: There are the type of people who prefer to cook, and the type of people who prefer to bake.
Street: And you are?
LB: I like to bake.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.