A group of recent BA graduates reflect on their Chicago experience, how studying history has shaped their career trajectories, and what our department has meant to them.
Danielle Wilson, Class of 2015
Curatorial intern of civil rights exhibition at the Museum of Social Justice, Los Angeles (2014 to the present) and research associate at the UCLA Labor Center (2015 to the present).
BA Thesis: The 1965 Anti-Chinese Riot in Jamaica: Anti-Colonial Frustration and Jamaican Chineseness in the Postcolonial Nation.
During my third year I realized that I was truly passionate about finding ways to "practice" history in the world. I had no idea that there was an entire academic and professional field dedicated to this enterprise—public history! To make a long story short, I went back home to Los Angeles that summer and connected with the lovely folks who run UCLA's public history program. From there, I worked on a walking tour script of South Los Angeles social justice and labor history for the Los Angeles Black Worker Center, a project of the UCLA Labor Center. A year later I am co-curating an exhibition on civil rights in Los Angeles at the Museum of Social Justice downtown and employed by the UCLA Labor Center, working on two separate, but related projects. I am collaborating with a few different partners to curate an exhibition on Local 767, the previously all-black musicians' union which merged with the all-white Local 47 in 1953. I am also working at UNITE-HERE (Local 11), processing their archives to be donated to UCLA Special Collections. I have yet to commit to a long-term profession, but I am fairly certain that I will continue to engage people in social activism and politics through history and culture.
Seferina Berch, Class of 2014
Legal intern to the Honorable Evan Wallach at the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit and JD student at the University of Pennsylvania Law School (2014–2017).
BA Thesis: "That the name of slave may no more be heard”: Changes in the Legal Framework for Challenging Slavery Before and After the Revolutionary War
As a history major, I not only learned a great deal about American history and about slavery in New England in the colonial period, the subject of my thesis, I also learned how to write a thesis. While it was up to me to choose my topic and the kinds of sources I would use for this project, by working under a thesis advisor, with input from other majors, I learned to edit myself and create a reasonably professional piece of work. My senior year I was also applying to law schools, and I found the experience of editing myself that I'd been learning with my history thesis very useful for writing law school applications. Combining the yearlong, often self-motivated process of writing a thesis with the law school application process also provided me with a valuable lesson in time management that will serve me well throughout law school and beyond. I also took a number of courses for my history major on the foundation and development of the American legal system which may serve me well in my law career.
Theo Benjamin, Class of 2014
Relationship mentor, Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services Department, Los Angeles (2014–2015); private tutor, Creative Academics (2015 to the present)
BA Thesis: The Pivotal Years, 1960–1989: Immigration Integration and the Million Homes Program
Currently, I spend my weekends working as a yearlong relationship mentor at the Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services department. There I work with clinicians and youth who are challenged along social, emotional, behavioral, and academic lines in order to help and provide a higher quality of social, emotional, behavioral, and educational services. The aim of this yearlong commitment is to encourage these adolescents to lead more self-reliant, stable, and productive lives. The University of Chicago History Department equips and challenges its students to examine humanity and the human experience in different circumstances and conditions, themes that have helped me to contextualize the mentoring that I’m currently doing.
The history major has offered a range of tactical skills that have definitely helped studying for the LSAT impressively manageable. Developing my close reading skills and analysis have allayed most of the fears I’ve had in tackling the reading comprehension or logical reasoning sections of the test. I often find myself appreciative of the history major’s strong reliance on reading and analyzing such a diverse variety of historical sources. Every now and then a test question or reading passage will come up that deals with historiographical controversies or some historical event (e.g., World War II, the Civil Rights movement, etc.). These instances always affirm some testament to my time spent in and out of Chicago’s classes debating the meaning, assumptions, or arguments of a particular historical zeitgeist.
Melissa High, Class of 2014
Urban Teacher Education Program, University of Chicago
BA Thesis: Creating Wartime Community: The Work of Chicago Clubwomen during World War II
My history coursework challenged me to think analytically and to engage in critical dialogue about my society and the world. As I begin my second year in University of Chicago’s Urban Teacher Education Program I find that the thinking and communication skills I developed as a history major are crucial resources for my growth as an urban teacher. They have supported my ability to understand and interrogate the current field of education and to engage the many political and social issues that surface within the classroom and my work with students and their families.
Katherine Jinyi Li, Class of 2013
Documentary filmmaker and Michel David-Weill scholarship to study journalism and human rights at the Institut d'études politiques de Paris (Sciences Po), Paris (2013–2015); journalist, São Paulo, Brazil (2013 to the present).
BA Thesis: Chinese Sans-Papiers and Immigrant Community Organization: Narrating Possibility in Contemporary French Politics of Exclusion
My history courses over the years had given me the structure of questioning and thought to analyse the archives of the past in relation to the lived experiences of the present. Today, the appreciation for placing stories in their greater timeline unique to a student of history has led me to pursue a life career in documentary film. Fluent in French after my BA research, I moved to Paris on a full-ride scholarship to participate in a double-degree master of journalism and human rights. Inspired by the protests that shook Brazil in 2013 I am currently filming a master documentary on the criminalisation of social movements during the World Cup in the city of São Paulo while interning at Brazilian human rights organisation, Conectas, on a grant from the Open Society Foundation. Before returning to the classroom in Paris, I will stop in Rio de Janeiro to work with French news agency Agence France Presse on covering the 2014 presidential elections in Brazil.
Amber Bailey, Class of 2013
MA student in public history, Loyola University Chicago (2014–2016); intern, Landmarks Illinois (2015 to the present); oral historian, Loyola Oral History Project (2015 to the present).
BA Thesis: Chicago's Engine Company 21: An Experiment with Interracial Democracy in an Era of Reconstructions, 1872–1927"
I arrived at the University of Chicago with a broad interest in history and a desire to formally study "the past." However, I could not have predicted the ways in which the History program would not only satisfy this desire but also motivate me to pursue a career in historical research and interpretation. Through my coursework I gained a solid grounding in the discipline of history and my particular field of interest—African American history. The History Department allowed me to further refine the research and writing skills I honed in the classroom through my BA thesis. My thesis, "Chicago's Engine Company 21: An Experiment with Interracial Democracy in an Era of Reconstructions, 1872–1927," explored how Reconstruction unfolded in Chicago by examining the story of the country’s first professional African American fire company. Through writing my BA thesis I deepened my interests in Reconstruction and Chicago’s history. I was also afforded the opportunity to craft my first research project under the invaluable guidance of my graduate student preceptor, my faculty advisor, and other faculty members. I look back on the process of writing my BA thesis as the most challenging but rewarding experience of my academic career. My positive experiences in the History Department encouraged me to pursue a career in history. After graduating I worked as a collections assistant at the DuSable Museum of African American History. In the fall of 2014 I entered Loyola University's master's program in public history. The history department has prepared me well for graduate study, and I am confident that the intellectual grounding I gained at the University of Chicago will continue to serve me well as I pursue a career as a museum curator.
Joshua Schwartz, Class of 2013
PhD student, Department of History, Columbia University, New York
BA Thesis: From Ashes: Social Restoration in Post-Fire Chicago. Published in Chicago Studies 2013 (The College: The University of Chicago, 2015).
This coming year I’m going to be a history PhD student at Columbia. I chose to keep studying history for a reason: for me, history isn’t just an unending, eternally irrelevant record of the past, and it isn’t political or statistical ammunition. Instead, it is a way of looking at the world, one wholly focused on real people and how and why they do the things that they do. History helps to explain their motivations and their actions in very real and personal terms; it sheds light on their worlds and times and in doing so, partially illuminates our own. And for me, this type of understanding isn’t really solely academic: because I study history, when people ask me about all kinds of things—about public policy, or business affairs, or personal problems, or even mass atrocities—I can give an answer, or at least an explanation.
Andrew Miller, Class of 2013
BA Thesis: "What's the Matter With Ragen?”: Politics, Masculinity, and Irish American Identity in Chicago, 1900–1927
Program coordinator, WorldChicago (2013–2014); project coordinator/executive assistant, Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (2014 to the present).
After graduating from the College I began working as a program coordinator at WorldChicago (which works with the US State Department on international exchange programs) through the University of Chicago's Public Interest Program. The research and writing skills I gained as a history major were useful to me in this position, since a substantial part of my job was writing proposals for government-sponsored international exchange projects. In a broader sense, the ability to efficiently sift through, analyze, and present information—all skills that the history major promotes—have been valuable in a wide variety of settings, including employment interviews, networking and advocacy opportunities, and staff meetings.
John Bobka, Class of 2013
Litigation project assistant, Kirkland & Ellis, LLP (2015 to the present); cochair of the Senior Class Gift Committee (2013).
BA Thesis: The 12th Illinois Volunteer Calvary and the Crisis of Military Discipline in the Union Army during the American Civil War
For the past year I have been working as a legal assistant at a small law firm in the River North area of Chicago that specializes in business litigation. I have plans to attend law school in the near future and feel that majoring in history has not only prepared me well for my current position, but will also prove to be useful when I actually enter law school. My course work, and even more so the BA thesis helped me develop the critical skill of quickly identifying an argument and how its conclusion is supported by its premises (or perhaps not!). This skill is imperative when assisting attorneys and will no doubt become even more important when I begin my legal studies. I also cannot overstate how important being succinct in your writing is in the "real world." This was something I struggled with and something my preceptor really focused on in order to make me a better writer, and it has paid dividends at my job. Additionally, many of my history courses contained legal themes in which I took great interest, which in turn have helped me decide that law school is the right next step for me.