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Department Spotlight

Public History Students Publicly Present Portfolios

By Mike Unger

If it weren’t for AU’s public history program, it’s safe to say that many of the students who earned their MA this month wouldn’t have become historians at all.

During their portfolio presentations on May 4, several of the nine women said that while history is their passion, teaching just wasn’t for them.

“I took an education course [as an undergraduate] and realized that I did not want to be a teacher,” said Natalie Rocchio, who’s interested in the history of Congress in the Civil War period. “I work at the Center for Legislative Archives. [My coworkers] have all followed my education, because I’m helping [implement] better practices and helping them do their jobs better, which is great.”

Most of the students recounted what first fascinated them about history; how they arrived at AU; and the internship and practicum experiences they had while in the program. They established personal Web sites, and displayed them on a screen for all to see.
Melanie Parker’s historical imagination was captured at a young age.

“My interest in public history started before I realized what public history is,” she said. “I was into reading the American Girl books, and one of the characters grew up in Williamsburg. When I found out it was a real place, all I ever wanted to do since the age of eight was work at Colonial Williamsburg, wear the pretty dresses, and pretend like it’s 1775 every day.”

Several of the students worked at Arlington House, the Robert E. Lee Memorial located in Arlington Cemetery. As part of their history practicum, some of them helped create wayside exhibits, signs that will be placed throughout the cemetery to educate visitors on the history of the place.

Another project included creating a podcast walking tour for the American Red Cross building.

Lauren Stelzer had a particularly fascinating internship. While working at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum downtown, she was tasked with cataloguing items donated by a recently deceased Holocaust survivor.

“By the time I was done, I felt like I knew [him] even though I had never met him,” she said. “I have a very strong connection to him. For me this collection summed up everything I find interesting about collections and history.”

Kathy Franz, the program’s director, praised all nine of the graduating students.

“We started this partly so the students can show off what they experienced, but also for us it’s a way to assess the skills they’ve learned,” she said. “People have very diverse experiences, but it’s clear that the flexibility of our program works. It gets people to come here.”

The graduating nine are: Emily Hummel, Melanie Parker, Emily Poster, Olivia Meyer, Natalie Rocchio, Lauren Stelzer, Leah Suhrstedt, Brittney Westbrook, and Tami Wolf.