New Department Chair: Introduction

By Jeanne Petit

JeannePetitAs a new chair of the Department of History, I feel that I am standing on the shoulders of giants. I have worked under three fabulous chairs during my time at Hope College: Dr. Albert Bell; Dr. Janis Gibbs; and Dr. Marc Baer. Their leadership elevated our department in many areas, particularly the expansion of student/faculty research collaboration, the globalization of our curriculum and the consideration of the relationship between teaching, scholarship and faith. All of these chairs have participated in creating a strong historical community at Hope College, and I look forward to building on their achievements.

I wanted to convey some of the priorities we have as a department over the next few years. One of our main goals is to be more intentional in helping our students think through their vocations, both as history students and in their lives beyond Hope College. We have always talked with students about how the skills of a historian—critical reading, clear writing, and thorough research—are building blocks for a wide variety of careers. We are working on ways to have our students do more intentional reflection, both in the classroom and out, on the ways their historical training relates to their calling in life. Moreover, we want to help students find more opportunities to explore their calling through internships, job shadows, and independent research projects.

At the same time, we want our students to see the study of history as valuable beyond building a career. Historical thinking involves understanding the complexity of change over time as well as the importance of understanding multiple points of view. It makes us better citizens, community members and people of faith. During these stressful times, we hope our majors can bring much-needed historical perspective to understanding the challenges of our nation and world.

I hope you will read our blog over the next year and see the wide variety of experiences and ideas in which our faculty, students, and alumni are engaged. I would also like to put out an invitation to our alumni. If you have insights about the value of your history major or minor that you would like to share, please contact me. We would love to have you write a blog post for us.

Alumni Feature: Rachel Syens

By Rachel Syens

rachel colorI’ve always loved history. I was the kid who made her friends watch Gladiator over the latest rom-com, stayed up way too late devouring novels like The Scarlet Pimpernel, and insisted on taking summer vacations to historic Williamsburg. I made it all the way to the State level of National History Day with a one-woman play I wrote and performed about Spartacus (yes, you read that correctly), and I helped create a film for my eighth grade algebra class about time travel.

I have always loved to read about history, write about history, and especially see history, but I didn’t know how to translate that infatuation with the past into a career.

My time at Hope College helped me to dig deep into my passion, and I’m proud to call myself a historian today.

You may be asking yourself at this point: what do you do as a historian? I’m a Public Historian. I specialize in researching and presenting history in the nonacademic realm – think museums, historic sites, and cultural heritage. When I first started at Hope, I was in love with all of history – I hated when my friends would ask about my favorite time period because I just couldn’t choose one! The History Department at Hope was wonderful because I was able to take so many classes on different time periods and places in history. I studied the Reformation in Europe, 1930s Latin America, the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, and Reconstruction-era America.

Rachel Syens on a study abroad weekend trip to London with fellow Hope grads Molly (Mead) Towne and Maggie Almdale.
Rachel Syens on a study abroad weekend trip to London with fellow Hope grads Molly (Mead) Towne and Maggie Almdale.

Hope also provided me with the incredible opportunity to study abroad. I spent a May term learning and living music history in the heart of Vienna, Austria. This kind of cultural learning was so impactful on my life – I wrote a paper on Mozart and less than one week later, I visited his birthplace in Salzburg. I also spent a wonderful semester at York St. John University in York, England, where I took courses on British history, Revolutionary Europe, and Shakespeare. York is one of the oldest cities in Britain, founded in AD 71 by the Romans. Every day, I would step out of my door and into history. It was here in York, running my hand along the Roman walls, walking on cobblestone streets traversed by the likes of Constantine, and attending a church where Guy Fawkes was baptized, that I finally began to discern my vocation.

Seeing history makes it come to life, painting pictures of the past and creating connections between people of the 21st century and those who lived thousands of years ago.

My varied coursework at Hope and my opportunity to study abroad taught me one of the most important lessons in history: all people are connected. We have lived on the same earth, wondered at the marvel of the same moon, felt joy, sadness, love, and loss. I desperately wanted to work in an arena where I could help create those deep connections. This passion led me to pursue a graduate degree in Public History at Western Michigan University. I’m so thankful that Hope pushed me to read, research, and write at such a high level because I felt very prepared for my demanding graduate work. More than that, Hope shaped my love of history into a passion, and that passion carried me through countless late nights, paper deadlines, and projects.

At a recent event Rachel coordinated at the museum called "From Malaysia to Michigan."
At a recent event Rachel coordinated at the museum called “From Malaysia to Michigan.”

That passion connected me with my fellow graduate students and professors, and allowed me to make a difference as a Teaching Assistant for undergrads. That passion led me to graduate with a Master’s Degree in Public History, officially cementing my title of “Historian,” a dream since I was young. Finally, that passion led me to my job at the Holland Museum as the Volunteer and Tour Coordinator. In this position, I have the privilege of sharing history with volunteers, students, and visitors, both inside the walls of the museum and out in the community.

Alumni Feature: Jackie Huss

By Jackie Huss

Jackie headshotWhen I arrived on Hope’s campus in the fall of 2001 the thought of becoming a history major had never entered my mind. Like many people, I discovered new things about myself during my freshman year and knew I needed to find a new focus. My parents encouraged me to look back on my high school work and volunteer experiences for inspiration for what I would like to do with the rest of my life. The thing that immediately came to mind was my time spent as a volunteer tour guide at the Hackley and Hume Historic Site in my hometown of Muskegon, Michigan. I realized working in the museum field was something I found enjoyable and fascinating as a volunteer, so making it my career path seemed like a no-brainer.

At the beginning of my sophomore year I declared as a history major and started my journey. Although Hope doesn’t have a Museum Studies program, Professors Marc Baer and Albert Bell helped me mold my own learning experience through internships. The first semester of my junior year, I interned at the Holland Historical Trust Museum under the Curator of Education. I didn’t think I wanted to work with elementary-aged children, but this internship started me on a path of sharing Michigan history with the public in easy and accessible ways, which has become my passion.

Leading group of students at Hackley & Hume Histoirc Site
Leading a group of students at the Hackley & Hume Historic site.

The spring semester of my junior year, I took my Seminar class with Dr. Fred Johnson, which was an amazing experience. The topic was the Civil War and Dr. Johnson allowed me to focus my final paper on the Underground Railroad in Michigan, since I had such a passion for Michigan history. I conducted research on campus, at the University of Michigan’s Bentley Historical Library, and through a series of “field trips” to various locations of historical significance to the Underground Railroad. The paper I wrote has continued to serve as a base of knowledge in my professional career. For example, I have used the paper and the materials I cited in writing the paper as a resource for writing exhibit label text and speaking about the Underground Railroad to various groups in West Michigan.

I applied for a competitive Historical Resources internship at The Henry Ford in Dearborn and was selected as one of seven interns from over 30 applicants. I was placed at their Benson Ford Research Center for the summer between my junior and senior years. I learned a lot about research and working for a large history institution. That internship confirmed that my passion was not just in doing the research, but in sharing it with the public.

My final internship in the fall of 2004 was a turning point in my life. I knew I would graduate a semester early, so I applied for an internship back where it all began, the Lakeshore Museum Center (the parent museum to the Hackley and Hume Historic Site).

My internship with the LMC allowed me to work in all departments of the museum as well as attend my first professional museum conference.

When a position as the Assistant Curator of Education was available I knew that museum education and programming was the direction I wanted to go. I applied, was interviewed just a few weeks before my December graduation, was hired the day before Thanksgiving, and started my career immediately following graduation.

Interested students at the Old Indian Cemetery.
Interested students at the Old Indian Cemetery.

Over the last 11 years, I have grown in my position and am now the Program Manager for our main Museum Center. In addition to creating and overseeing programming for schools, families, and adults, I also have the opportunity to serve as project manager on various exhibits. The largest was a two year complete remodel of our Fire Barn Museum, during which I relied heavily on the research skills I gained while a student at Hope College.

I can honestly say that without the guidance and opportunities I had as a student at Hope, I would not be in a career that is ever-evolving and rewarding!

Student Feature: Alexandra Piper

By Alex Piper, ’17

Ever since I was a kid, museums have been a point of fascination for me. I used to beg my parents to take my across the country to a certain museum or explain to my friends in nauseating detail about my favorite museums and exhibits. When it came time to look for an internship in the Fall of 2015, Dr. Baer directed me towards the Gerald R. Ford museum. As a History and Political Science double major, this internship program played to both of my interests while providing important and necessary work experience.

Like many people, I had a limited knowledge of Gerald Ford and his rise to the presidency in the mid 1970’s.

Working in the museum gave me a hands-on way to learn about President Ford and the historical context of the country he presided over while also learning the technical side of museums.

At the museum, I worked as a Collections Management intern under the Registrar, Jamie Draper. Jamie had an extensive knowledge of how museums work, but also knew so much about Gerald Ford and his life. One of my favorite parts of the internship was my ability to openly ask questions anything in the museum and learn so much from Jamie.

IMG_5242The main part of my internship consisted of doing behind the scenes work in Artifact Collections. This included basic photography, artifact cleaning and numbering, encapsulation, building custom storage mounts, accessioning, and cleaning up old records.

One of my favorite projects included handling a donated collection of over 150 Bicentennial items. This collection included lunch boxes, cooking supplies, pop cans, toys, and other objects celebrating America’s 200th birthday. IMG_5080Prior to working with the artifacts, I had not realized how significant the Bicentennial was for Americans at the time. Jamie helped me to understand that it was important for Americans to celebrate two hundred years of freedom and democracy, especially after the distrust that followed the Watergate Scandal, Vietnam, and a series of economic problems. I love the feeling of contributing to the museum’s collection and protecting a part of history.

I was also very fortunate to work in the museum during a few exciting times. The ArtPrize competition was happening in Grand Rapids at the beginning of my internship, and I was able to participate in setting up the museum to host the art. I learned how long of a process ArtPrize is, but it was exciting to see how the entire competition comes together.

IMG_5209I was also lucky to work in the museum while it closed down for renovations. This created a special project for the interns because we helped take down the entire core exhibit in the main part of the museum. This exhibit included artifacts that had not been handled in years like Watergate break-in tools, Betty Ford’s inaugural dress, Nixon’s pardon, and various head of state gifts. Working with these artifacts and experiencing that part of history in a tangible way was certainly an amazing experience.

When I started the internship, I was not sure how my education at Hope would apply to the job. I had never worked in a museum, but my job went beyond just technical skill. I worked on researching and writing about artifacts, a job aided by the historical writing skills my professors taught me. When writing about an artifact, I knew how to put it within a historical context. This ability made the entire learning experience richer.

IMG_5152This museum internship is a job that I will remember for a long time. I learned so many lessons, skills, and how to balance a school semester and work. Most importantly, however, I learned about Gerald R. Ford and the American presidency. Handling artifacts created a real approach to history, and helped me understand Ford a president, but most importantly, as a human.

I was privileged to work with people who understood and cared about the Fords as people, but also cared deeply about history. My supervisor, Jamie, and the curator, Don, taught me more than just the tactical side of museum work, but instilled important lessons about American history that I will be able to use in my future. I am fortunate to have worked under a relatively unknown President, and I hope that I can take this new knowledge and apply to both my History and Political Science majors, as well as teach others about President Gerald R. Ford.

If you are in the Grand Rapids area, go check out the newly renovated Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum!