UChicago history majors take all kinds of different paths after graduation. In a new installment from our series on alumni careers, we talked Stephanie Ban, AB'18, who is a Housing Counselor at the Great Lakes Credit Union.
What did you do after graduation, and where are you now?
After graduation, I took some time to think through what kind of job opportunities I wanted to pursue. I have a strong passion for social justice in general, and disability rights in particular, so I looked at positions in disability services in higher education, other disability rights work, and positions at nonprofits that were not explicitly disability-focused. In August of 2018, I got the opportunity to present alongside two wonderful co-presenters at Autspace 2018, a conference by and for autistic people. I talked about some alternatives to mainstream direct action in organizing, and part of that involved putting ideas in context based on the history of various activist movements both within and outside of disability communities. It was a great experience!
Right now, I'm settling into a new job that I got in December. I'm a Housing Counselor at Great Lakes Credit Union. I'm still in training now, but once that finishes, I will be able to help clients meet their housing and financial goals. I aim to bring my knowledge of disability rights to my work, since I know that having a disability can introduce particular considerations for locating and maintaining housing, as well as building stable finances.
What are your most vivid memories of studying history at UChicago?
I loved studying history at UChicago, and I couldn't ask for a better department and colleagues! One of my favorite and most formative experiences was taking Professor [Susan] Burns's colloquium in spring 2015 aimed at prospective history majors. That class was my first exposure to working with primary sources in an archive, and it cemented my love of research. For the final paper in that class, I wrote about a 1983 protest by a wheelchair-using UChicago SSA student named Jeff Ellis, and his classmates. They were protesting an inadequate wheelchair lift at SSA, but they were also making a claim that disabled students belonged at UChicago more generally. As a disabled student and wheelchair user, it was important to me that I do my best to document a part of disability history that many people had no idea existed.
Another fond history memory was taking Professor [Ada] Palmer's Italian Renaissance class in my fourth year. Two weeks of the class is a live action role play of the papal election of 1492. I was King Charles of France. I had a lot of fun participating in the simulation, and it gave me tremendous insight into the limitations of one person's power and the interdependency of all of the actors. Even as a king, I couldn't act unilaterally or without consequence, and my information was always filtered through who I was getting it from and their motives. Professor Palmer and her team did a great job of accommodating various access needs related to my disabilities, and I'd definitely recommend the class to anyone who is even a little bit interested in the Renaissance.
In what ways has your study of history intersected with your work in activism?
My study of history and my disability rights activism are deeply connected, and I consider myself an activist historian. I wrote my BA thesis on wheelchair accessibility at Chicago-area universities in the period 1970 to 1990, and many of the historical moments I discuss are moments of activism. I chose to compare how students and administrators reacted to physical inaccessibility at UChicago, Northwestern, and the University of Illinois at Chicago, and at each school, students were often the ones raising concerns and making their issues known to administrators. UChicago was the only school to have an overt protest, but protests are not the only form of activism.
So I studied activism, but I don't think I would have found that path if I was not myself an activist. Upon arriving at UChicago, I quickly became involved with the Organization for Students with Disabilities, a group that is part activism and advocacy for increased accessibility in various forms on campus, and part social support by and for disabled students. OSD was my first formal foray into disability rights activism, and for the first time in my life, I embraced my disabilities not as things that were wrong with me, but as important parts of my identity that provided community with others. Key to OSD's sense of community was a strong desire to make UChicago better, not only for us, but for future generations of disabled students. As part of OSD, my activism took many forms: presenting on topics related to the rights of disabled students, helping to facilitate discussions and lectures by disabled people inside and outside of academia, collaborating with other activist groups on campus, and engaging in dialogue with administrators. Developing this broad skillset when it came to advocating for change made it easy and natural to study moments of activism in the past. It was important for me to document that disabled students are not new to UChicago (or indeed any university), and that our history is worthy of being remembered.
How do you use your history degree in your professional life? How did it shape your job search process?
People may not think history is immediately relevant to my work as a housing counselor, but I disagree. A history degree is as much about developing a skillset as it is about researching a particular question or writing a paper. As a historian, I learned to ask questions, to listen to what sources were communicating to me, and to convey my ideas in understandable ways. As a housing counselor, I will ask clients questions about their needs and goals. I will listen to what they communicate to me, and I will be conveying sometimes-complicated information in understandable ways. It's a lot of the same skillset as I used at UChicago. I also think doing as much reading and writing as I did at UChicago will continue paying off in my job, where I have to read a lot of material fairly quickly and synthesize it into case notes.
As far as my job search, doing a history major and being a disability rights activist at UChicago helped me clarify some of the skills I wanted to use at a job. I knew I wanted to continue engaging with disability rights and advocating for increased accessibility of all kinds, not only wheelchair access. I knew I wanted to help people solve their problems and reach their goals. I was never daunted by large amounts of reading and writing, and I love learning new things. I also wanted a work environment where I would be encouraged to keep learning. Housing counseling really hits all those points for me. Although the position isn't specifically focused on activism or disability rights, access to housing is definitely a social justice issue that intersects with disability. I think people with disabilities are an underserved population when it comes to housing and financial counseling, so I'm hoping to use my academic and personal knowledge, as well as knowledge acquired on the job, to really push for increased consideration of disabled people's needs.
Do you have any advice to provide to current history students?
My advice to current history students would be to explore what interests you, both inside and outside of your primary field. You never know when you'll be able to use insights from another period or place to enrich your work, or maybe you'll find a new topic that you become fascinated with. I would also say that the skills you learn as a historian are very broadly applicable outside academic history, and that there is a lot of value in being able to articulate those skills in non-academic settings. Writing a thesis is proof that you're dedicated and can adapt as your sources and/or research questions shift. Historians know how to successfully communicate big ideas to a variety of audiences, and they know how to think critically about where (and who) information is coming from, and how those sources may be biased or incomplete. Leaving UChicago doesn't even have to mean the end of doing published history; a recent piece of mine was published in The Activist History Review. There are definitely outlets that you can pitch to if you want to continue doing history or non-academic writing using the skills and mindset of a historian.
To read more features from this series, read our posts on Regina Wen, a Junior Marketing Growth Analyst at SeatGeek; Rose Berman, a student at Harvard Medical School; and Sonia Gaur, an Accounts Service Representative at NBC Universal.