Thesis topic: 20th century land conflict in eastern Congo
"Any experience – trying to solve problems related to rural poverty, developing a product that addresses a social need, or reading (or writing) the news – is made more ethical, thorough, and enriching by thinking like a historian."
I'm currently a PhD student in African history at Northwestern University in Evanston, IL. (I will be starting my 3rd year in the fall of 2017.)
First Job after Graduation:
After graduating from Stanford I worked for an NGO in Burundi through the Princeton in Africa Fellowship program. After 14 months in Burundi I returned to the US and taught high school history at Phillips Academy in Andover, MA. After that I started a PhD program in African history at Northwestern University.
How did you end up pursuing your career? Do you have any advice for students contemplating similar career paths? What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were an undergraduate?
I always knew I wanted to pursue a graduate degree in history, but at the end of my time at Stanford my advisors gave me the (excellent) advice to take time off from school to live in the region of the world I had been studying. I'm really I did so. My fellowship through Princeton in Africa taught me about other ways I could use my history major after graduation and also exposed me to the nuances of development work in a way that complemented my previous coursework. It was also a great way to spend time in the region of the world I'd spent my history major learning about. Teaching high school history was an amazingly fun, interesting, and rewarding experience – and it also let me share my love of history, which I developed at Stanford, with an awesome group of students and colleagues.
My advice for students who want to pursue a PhD is the same advice Professor Roberts gave me six years ago – take time off! Also, definitely get to know some of the wonderful mentors in the history department before you leave and talk to them (as well as current PhD students) about your graduate school ideas/plans. My advice for students who want to pursue a career in teaching or in international development (or really in anything else) is to not underestimate all the ways in which thinking critically and thinking historically can enrich your experience, regardless of what "career" category that experience falls under. (See below for more on that.)
Has your History training helped you along the way - and if so, how?
Absolutely. This is probably the most obvious answer, but it's still worth mentioning that I continue to be impressed with the training I received in African history at the undergraduate level. Graduate school is certainly plenty challenging -- and I can only imagine how much more difficult it would be if I hadn't had the preparation and amazing professors I did while at Stanford.
But beyond the obvious ways in which it helped lay essential foundations for the work I'm doing at the graduate level, I think that the undergraduate history major gave me both the practical skillset and conceptual framework that made other non-History-PhD related tasks more achievable and also more enriching and enjoyable. As far as practical skillsets go, the research practice, oral history interviewing experience, and writing skills that I developed through the major and through my thesis project were incredibly helpful for NGO work in Burundi. Program evaluation efforts, newsletter writing, and interviewing project participants were all significantly easier because of that training. I think that the ability to research specific questions, find information and sources on particular events, and articulate causal arguments clearly and persuasively was also particularly useful in writing grants to fund some of our development projects. These general research and writing skills were also helpful as a high school teacher trying to train students who were going to go onto pursue a variety of different majors, and my comfortability with tracking down unique primary sources helped make lesson planning easier and more enjoyable.
Finally, I may be biased, but I genuinely think that any experience – whether it's trying to solve problems related to rural poverty, being a tourist in another country, developing a product that addresses a particular social need, talking to a high school students about religion or racism or family structures, or reading (or writing) the news – is made more ethical, thorough, and enriching by thinking like a historian. (I will concede that it doesn't always make it easier – confidently coming up with international development projects is certainly made more daunting after years of studying developmentalism and colonialism – but I would also argue something like that should not be easy.) Thinking critically about how historic processes produced the categories we use to understand today's world, questioning simplistic notions of progress and universalism, staying mindful of both structure and agency, and looking beyond the loudest and most prominent voices in the archival record have applicability and importance that extends far, far beyond an undergraduate history major.
Do you have any particularly fond memories of the History Department?
Writing an honors thesis, traveling to the African Great Lakes region and Belgium to conduct that research, being involved in the African history/African Studies community at Stanford, and getting to work closely with some of Stanford's incredible faculty and staff were the best experiences I had at Stanford. Specifically, working as a course assistant for a freshman history introsem (for Professor Naimark) and writing an honors thesis (with Professor Roberts and Professor Hanretta) were particularly memorable experiences. They were also especially important for my career trajectory because they were the first times I realized how much I love teaching and doing history research.