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.

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