Campus & Community

When the circus called, she took the leap

Trapeze artist Izzy Patrowicz flying through the during a circus performance.

Images courtesy of Izzy Patrowicz

4 min read

Extension School allowed trapeze artist Izzy Patrowicz to pursue big-top dreams alongside bachelor’s degree

A collection of stories covering Harvard University’s 373rd Commencement.

Over the past 12 years, when trapeze artist and circus ringmaster Izzy Patrowicz wasn’t flying 40 feet in the air all over the world and performing in up to three shows a day, she was taking classes at Harvard Extension School to get her bachelor of liberal arts degree in the field of psychology.

The Salem, Massachusetts, native “was hooked” after taking her first class in “Creativity Research: Madmen, Geniuses, and Harvard Students” at the Extension School in fall 2012. “Then I decided to apply for the program and was accepted.”

“It’s been nice, honestly, to do it slowly,” Patrowicz said of her academic journey.

Performer Izzy Patrowicz gestures in costume standing on a barrel at the circus.

Patrowicz first began performing at age 10 with Circus Smirkus, an international youth troupe that hosts sleep-away camps and tours New England. While she mainly did a partner acrobatic hand balancing act, Patrowicz said her favorite stunt was the duo trapeze. Her love for the circus grew, which led to a difficult decision after high school: college or circus school?

Ultimately, Patrowicz left Salem for Whittier College in California, but only lasted a year and a half. The call of a lifetime came from a fellow artist leading Patrowicz to join the Big Apple Circus and learn the art of flying trapeze. While touring with Big Apple and other groups, Patrowicz briefly let her college career stall.

Fast-forward to 2012. Although she took a few Harvard classes in person, Patrowicz juggled most of her education online between circus stops. “All of the traveling has been amazing, but it’s been nice to take classes with people from all over the world,” she said. “It’s been really cool that everybody’s in different time zones, but they’ll come and meet at the same time for lecture.” 

“The flying trapeze act is an incredible amount of work. It’s an hour to warm up and then the act is 10 to 15 minutes long.”

This spring, Patrowicz took “The Psychology of Competition and Peak Performance” with Emily Hangen, a visiting assistant professor from Fairfield University. The course explored why some competitors choke and others thrive under pressure.

“It is not often we have a professional circus performer in the class,” Hangen said. “During the first day of introductions, her fascinating background immediately stood out and caught my attention.” Patrowicz’s experience made her an engaged student who always had insightful comments to contribute, the instructor added.

Patrowicz’s art has taken her throughout Europe, Australia, and the Middle East. “The flying trapeze act is an incredible amount of work. It’s an hour to warm up and then the act is 10 to 15 minutes long,” she explained. Evenings are spent practicing for the next day’s performance.

Recently, Patrowicz became one of the few women who can do a triple somersault — an act first performed by the young Latvian aerialist Lena Jordan in 1897, according to Guinness World Records. The daring act has Patrowicz soar through the air, tuck into a somersault, and open out for the catch.

When she wasn’t under the big top or in class, Patrowicz made elaborate costumes for herself and her boyfriend, who also performs. But the 33-year-old knows she can’t perform forever. She hopes to use her entertainment expertise as well as her psychology degree to plan for her future.

“I am confident that Izzy will continue to impress with her educational and professional pursuits,” Hangen said. “She is clear-eyed, intelligent, and has shown a maturity in considering and exploring future aims in her life. Given her work ethic and intelligence, I’m excited to see how far she goes and the contributions she will make in her next endeavors.”