Alumni Feature: Claire Barrett, ’15: “Do What You Love”

High Tatras, Slovakia

I grew up in a family that loved history. As a child I would attempt, in vain, to keep up with my father and older sister at dinner as they jumped from topic to topic, war to war. Tired of not contributing, I began to read. What began as an earnest desire to be part of my family’s dinner conversations became a lifelong passion. History has been and is a central point within my family. My first real conversation with my grandfather was on the topic of William Manchester’s semi-autobiographical book, Goodbye, Darkness. History not only influences the way I view the world, it is also a very real link to my family. Because of this, I grew up loving and respecting history, and in particular, military history. It enthralled me like no other subject could, and so, despite many well-meaning “what are you going to do with a history degree?” questions, I pursued a history major.

Thus, I graduated from Hope with a degree in history and then a MA in the History of War from King’s College, London. In college, I had no real clue what I wanted to do with my degree, and to be honest, I had no real idea in graduate school either. I just knew that I wanted to work in some capacity in or around the subject of history. My introverted self-delighted in the hours spent in the stacks, and in the British National Archives. Yet despite the welcome solitude, my degree path also gave me countless opportunities, from interning with the U.S. State Department in London during my time at Hope, to working with a NY Times bestselling author while at graduate school in London. A history degree can seem niche if you let it. However, as I found out, there are always places in the work force for curious, critical thinkers who know how to do serious research. My current job is a product of that.

Isle of Wight, UK

I landed my job as the associate editor for MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History and Military History magazine because of my work while in London. I am lucky that I get to engage in the material that excites me the most every single day.

Military Aviation Museum, Virginia Beach, VA

My sister Esther Barrett Wloch (’12), another Hope College history major alum, went in the opposite path of me. She worked for several years at the University of Michigan Musical Society and now currently works for Duo, a cybersecurity firm. She is thriving, despite having no background, I mean literally zero background, in the tech world due to her strong analytical and communication skills that she sharpened from her studies of history.

To be a historian, one engages with current events with a critical eye and a deeper understanding of that history, whether it be political, social, or military. The somewhat tired and oft-repeated line by George Santayana “those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it” still rings true today. For, as Churchill’s biographer Manchester wrote, “history is more than a time line, more than the sequencing and parsing of collective memory.”

My father, a musician (someone who has followed his own somewhat unique path), always said to me, “Honestly Claire, do what you love, work hard at it, and it will come together.” So that is my advice, and it is simple: Do what you love, for a degree in history means to have a thorough knowledge of the past, which cultivates one’s intellect, teaching one to know how to think, not what to think. The nurturing of one’s mind is invaluable, and trust me, imminently transferable to the world of work.

Student Feature: Jennifer Cimmarusti

The application deadline for the Paris May Term is Nov. 29. As that date approaches, Professor Janes asked senior history major Jennifer Cimmarusti to share some of her experiences and insights about the trip.

Jennifer in the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles. This room was the sight of many royal gatherings under Louis XIV, Louis XV, and Louis XVI. It was also the sight of the signing of the The Treaty of Versailles on June 28, 1919, formally ending World War I. Photo by Jennifer Cimmarusti.

Professor Janes: What was your favorite place that you visited or activity you did?

Jennifer: The first was the beautiful town of Versailles, which we visited together as a class. While most people are interested in the main palace where the kings lived, I was personally more fascinated by the smaller mansions and the lush gardens that surrounded each building. To see the incredibly detailed designs of the buildings and extravagant furniture was a once in a lifetime opportunity. Along with that the places were full of fascinating history. As someone who absolutely loves the French Revolution, it was a dream come true to see the Jeu de Paume, or tennis courts, where the National Assembly met and planned their revolt. Overall, Versailles was my favorite place that we visited as a group.

Professor Janes: What surprised you about Paris?

Jennifer: I was surprised at how well I was able to communicate with Parisians. As someone who does not speak a lick of French, I was quite nervous about how I was going to get by. However, I found out that most French people do speak English, and I was able to pick up some French phrases. When all else failed, hand gestures worked as well. So what I thought was going to be a major issue was actually one of the easier parts of the trip. It also taught me that it is okay to travel somewhere and not completely understand the language, though a few words or phrases can’t hurt.

Professor Janes: Can you describe an example of how history shapes the city?

The quiet, windy streets of Montmartre, a neighborhood untouched by Haussmann’s redesign of Paris. Photo by Jennifer Cimmarusti.

Jennifer: One of the aspects of Paris I found most intriguing were the subtle hints of history located just about everywhere. It was hard to go anywhere in the city and not be surrounded by centuries of history. Even the streets themselves had a story to tell. In the mid-19th Century under the rule of Napoleon III, Baron Georges-Eugéne Haussmann was instructed to carry out a massive urban renewal plan. Not only did this modernize the city, but it also helped with sanitation and overall cleanliness. One of his most important projects was widening the streets of Paris and to create new apartment buildings. A prime example of his work can be found on the famous Avenue de l’Opéra, the street leading up to the Garnier Opera House. Here one can see the simple architectural style that was used by Haussmann and the wide streets to allow both pedestrians and cars through. So when I say that every aspect of the city is covered in History, I literally mean every part of it.

The Place Charles de Gaulle featuring the The Arc de Triomphe is the very epitome of Haussmann’s Grand Boulevards style of modern Paris. It sits on the the historic axis connecting the Louvre Museum all the way to the La Defense business district. From this view, Jen is looking out to La Defense with Paris behind her as the sun sets on the City of Lights. Photo by Jennifer Cimmarusti.

Professor Janes: Any advice for students considering traveling on May or June terms abroad?

Jennifer: My best advice for those considering studying abroad is do not put it off. While you may be hesitant for one reason or another about traveling abroad, it is also good to consider the reasons you should go. For instance, while I love to travel I was incredibly nervous about going to a foreign country by myself with no friends or family to accompany me. It was not until I talked to you, Dr. Janes, that I began to realize the importance of studying abroad. I remember you told me that not only is it vital to my own education, but also when else in my lifetime will I be able to do something like this? So I want to encourage those students out there who were scared like me to have a little faith and take that step forward. Traveling abroad has been one of my best experiences and I would do it again tomorrow if I could.

Faculty Feature: Marc Baer

Picture of history professor Marc BaerHistorians don’t create information: they read what’s handed to them, or rather what they can discover that was created by people in the past. Often, one bit of information contradicts another, and the historian is forced to compare and then choose between them, or ascertain which data are the truest, or construct a narrative from the disparate, contradictory bits. Beginning with our undergraduate years, we do this over and over until what begins as a method of analysis becomes second nature to us. We use it when we engage in scholarship, but also in our lives as citizens when we read newspapers, listen to speeches or watch television news reports. The world calls it critical thinking; historians call it being a thoughtful historian.

Now, imagine yourself as head of HR in a company, or the owner of a small business, or perhaps a dean employed at a prestigious small college in the Midwest. When you’re not signing forms, most of your time is spent doing precisely what the historian does. Hence my thesis (which, by the way, probably should have appeared in the previous paragraph): the best training for someone who is an administrator is—trumpet flourish here—history!

My argument is rather simple. In any workplace setting where one is called upon to make decisions—involving two people whose stories challenge each other, or two options presented to you either of which, if implemented, will make someone angry—the historian’s method kicks in. It’s not so much that we’re perpetually skeptical—which I would argue is an unhelpful attitude—but perpetually curious, inquisitive and aware that most contexts are characterized by complexity rather than simplicity. Therefore, when we’re in this analytical moment, our minds go to, “Hmmm. I wonder.” We begin to turn things over, to step back from the context, to seek antecedents, and to compare the situation with others we have encountered in the past. Only then are we prepared to decide.

Complimenting curiosity is another attitude engendered by the historian’s habit of thinking—empathy.  This can be understood as looking out at the world through the eyes of the other person. I like this, from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” As I recall, other than in the history seminar I never explicitly encouraged students to try to be empathetic. But in an exit interview a colleague and I did with a history major he stated that’s what the history major did for him, which made me realize we had encouraged empathy without ever naming it as such.

In the year I spent as Dean for the Arts and Humanities I relied on my training as an historian almost every day on the job. I had to apply curiosity and empathy to make wise decisions. I had to read documents against each other, likewise with colleagues’ narratives. Being an historian doesn’t guarantee that you’ll get all those decisions right, but I don’t know how administrators without the training historians receive engage the problem-solving process well.

One final takeaway: I hope I’ve exploded the myth that there’s any tight linkage between major and career. Majors such as history that emphasize strong communications skills which follow on strong analytical skills which follow on strong research skills provide the best preparation for solving problems.

Majoring in history is not for the weak of heart. But neither is the world of work, or for that matter, life.

Marc Baer taught in Hope’s History department for 33 years, serving as chair for the last 6. He then served as the college’s interim Dean for Arts and Humanities for 13 months, retiring for good in June 2017.