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Sean Trainor

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Sean Trainor

Since graduating from Penn State and the Richards Civil War Era Center in the summer of 2015, I have been pursuing a career as an academic freelancer in Gainesville, Florida. In this role, I’ve secured teaching contracts with Santa Fe College, the University of Florida, and Penn State University; organized a seminar with the University of Florida’s Center for the Humanities and the Public Sphere (writingforthepublic.org); helped design a digital pedagogy project for the Richards Center’s People’s Contest digital archiving project (currently in progress); and published my writing in both public and academic venues. These include The Atlantic, Salon, TIME, the Civil War Monitor, Business History Review, The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia, and a series of Gale / Cengage ebooks on U.S. history.

The role of academic freelancer has allowed me to pursue my wide-ranging interests in pedagogy, public-facing and academic writing, digital humanities, and professional service, while leveraging my academic training and making the most of a slack full-time employment market in history. My experience has proved (to my own surprise) both professionally and financially rewarding, and offers a model for how to be a publically-engaged, alt-ac historian in the era of the so-called “gig economy.” Going forward, I hope to continue to expand my client base and transition my dissertation into a book manuscript.

My background as a member of the Penn State and Richards Center communities has been essential to my successful transition into this new, largely-uncharted career path. In addition to supporting my traditional academic training with generous research funds, rigorous teaching opportunities, outstanding speaker series, and engaging seminar offerings, the Richards Center also encouraged my interest in public history, professional service, and the digital humanities. As a Richards Center research assistant, for instance, I created a short-lived but popular blog for the Center, where I was able to hone my writing chops; as a later stage graduate student, I had the privilege to help organize the first Emerging Scholars workshop (a tradition now in its fourth year); and as a recent graduate, the Center has helped me build my digital humanities portfolio by hiring me to create a digital project around the Milton Lytle Diaries. Perhaps most importantly, the Richards Center has provided me with a community of friends and mentors on whom I continue to rely for personal and professional support.

Michael Smith

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Michael Smith

I graduated from Penn State with a Ph.D. in History in 2005, and am currently an associate professor and head of the Department of History at McNeese State University in Lake Charles, Louisiana. I benefited immensely from my association with the Richards Center in a variety of ways. Generous funding support made it possible to get my dissertation research and writing done in a timely fashion. I really enjoyed working with the center's distinguished faculty members, including my adviser Mark Neely, Bill Blair, Amy Greenberg, Carol Reardon, and others who were incredibly generous with their time and support. The grad students who were ahead of me were likewise generous with advice and encouragement, while the members of my cohort who I shared the incredible ups and downs of the graduate school experience became like family to me. It has also been just great to see subsequent students come through the Center, benefit from its strengths and generosity, and continue to represent it well. I certainly think that anyone interested in pursuing the academic study of the American Civil War Era should seriously consider what the Richards Center has to offer them.

Samantha Sarsfield

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Samantha Sarsfield

How did the Richards Center make a difference in your undergraduate career? When I first encountered this question, I laughed. Not because of the question itself, but because of the countless answers that I could provide. I applied for a Richards Center internship sort of on a whim during the fall of my junior year at Penn State. I had heard about this opportunity in one of my history classes, and I thought it would be a cool summer job that would look good on a resume. Little did I know that submitting that application would change the course of not only my undergraduate education but also my future career.

I was selected for a summer 2014 internship in the Education Department at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. My experiences there influenced me to such an extent that I reapplied for the position the following year and returned to Harpers Ferry for a second summer in 2015. Taken together, those two internships have been nothing less than an unparalleled source of development- both professionally and personally.

As a secondary education major, the Richards Center internships have prepared me for my future profession in ways that an undergraduate education alone never could have. Before Harpers Ferry, I had studied seemingly endless philosophies of education, instructional approaches, and teaching techniques. I had read books, attended lectures, and completed research assignments about those topics, but I had never had the opportunity to truly apply those concepts. The Richards Center internships provided me with the hands-on experience that my academic coursework lacked. In Harpers Ferry, I was actually teaching. I led groups of school students through interpretive programs that traced the multi-faceted, centuries worth of history that the small town encompassed. I developed and instrumented a variety of interactive activities for visitors of all ages that immersed them in history. I finally put into practice the methods and strategies that I had learned about in a classroom for so long.

Currently, I am finishing my final semester of student teaching and preparing for graduation in December. Because of the Richards Center, I entered the classroom with a multitude of skills that have eased my transition from being a student to being a teacher. The Harpers Ferry internships provided me with extensive practice in areas such as oral presentation, historical interpretation, time management, vocal delivery, planning/preparation, and so much more. Most importantly, they have helped me to realize my own potential and given me the confidence in myself and in my ability as a teacher that I needed. I have even been selected for the honor of serving as the College of Education’s student marshal at the fall 2015 graduation ceremony. I can credit that accomplishment not only to the quality education that I received at Penn State but also to the invaluable experience I gained through the Richards Center. Working at Harpers Ferry has impacted me so much that I am even considering a career in the Park Service. So to answer the original question, the opportunities available through the Richards Center did nothing less than change my life.

Christian Keller

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Christian Keller

Although the Richards Center was relatively new when I finished my Ph.D. in 2001, the professors who were instrumental in the early operations of the Center (Dr. Mark E. Neely and Dr. William Blair, especially) were also instrumental in my development as a professional historian.  Dr. Blair served on my comprehensive exam committee and offered numerous insights that I incorporated later in my dissertation; Dr. Neely became my dissertation advisor and, in many ways, taught me how to ask the right questions of the historical evidence I uncovered--a necessary skill for the historian's art.  Today, in my current research, writing, and teaching at the Army War College, I still remember to ask those key questions and try to pass them on to my own students.  For military professionals, history is useful for how it teaches them to think and question their preconceptions, all with an eye towards application in modern policy and strategy.  Ask the wrong questions, or taint the interpretation of the past with modern presentist agendas, and the value of history to the national security practitioner is lost.

My students and I owe a great deal to the superb professional historical education I received at Penn State.  Without the superb mentorship of professors like Mark Neely, Gary Gallagher, Carol Reardon, Bill Blair, and (the late) William Pencak, I would most assuredly not be teaching America's future strategic leaders today.  Penn State remains one of the country's premier locations for graduate work in history, especially 19th Century America, and I recommend the department and the Richards Center unhesitatingly.  

Antwain Hunter

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Antwain Hunter

I was incredibly fortunate to do my graduate study in the Richards Civil War Era Center at Penn State.  The Center has great financial support from people like Steven and Janice Brose, who were very supportive and interested in my work.  I also had a great deal of support from the Richards Center’s affiliated faculty, both in coursework and on my dissertation project— Tony Kaye, Bill Blair, Lori Ginzberg, Amy Greenberg, and Nan Woodruff were all incredibly helpful for me personally.  The Richards Civil War Era Center is also home to a great group of graduate students who I was privileged to work alongside.  These intelligent and motivated scholars, both grad students and faculty, created a solid community that sustained me through the challenges of graduate school and helped to shape me into the historian that I am today.  This community continues to sustain me— I keep regular contact with some of my former colleagues and always look forward to meeting up with folks at conferences. 

Beyond fostering a solid intellectual environment Bill Blair ensured that the Richards Center students are prepared for life beyond graduate school.  The Center brought top-notch scholars to augment our community via the Brose Distinguished Lecture Series, the Emerging Scholars Workshop, and the Richards Civil War Era Center Postdoctoral Fellowship.  In addition to this valuable networking Bill ensured that Center’s graduate students could get some funding for summer research, assistantships, conference travel, etc.  I also had the opportunity to work for Matt Isham on the People’s Contest digital archive project, which gave me some exposure to digital humanities projects.

I am currently in my third year of a tenure track job in Butler University’s Department of History and Anthropology and working hard on my book manuscript.  My project, which is based off of my dissertation, examines free and enslaved black North Carolinians firearm use, and what that gun use meant within the context of a slave society.

I would encourage anyone who is interested in pursing graduate study in the long Civil War Era to consider the Richards Center at Penn State.  The Center provides competitive financial support for its students but of equal importance the Center offers a community of motivated, supportive, and really sharp scholars.