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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.

Scott Huffard

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Scott Huffard

I had always been a huge Civil War buff as a kid, and I fondly remember pouring over campaign and battle maps and taking trips to battlefields like Gettysburg and Antietam while growing up.  Part of the reason I decided to major in history was this interest in the Civil War, so once I got to Penn State I naturally took all the Civil War courses I could. I was in Civil War classes at both the undergraduate and graduate level with Dr. Blair, Dr. Greenberg, and Dr. Neely, along with history courses in other fields. In particular, the graduate seminar, with a heavy reading and research load, helped convince me that graduate study in history was a great option for me.

As a student in the Schreyer Honors College, I had an opportunity to write an honors thesis in history and further improve my research and writing skills.  Working with Dr. Derickson and Dr. Letwin, I wrote my thesis on the aftermath of the Great Strike of 1877 in Scranton and the surrounding coal mining districts. I remember spending many hours flipping through newspapers on microfilm and letters from Pinkerton detectives at the Pattee Library.

Before my senior year, I also had the opportunity to intern at Harpers Ferry National Historic Park. The Richards Center organized this internship with the education department at the park, and I spent a summer teaching groups of middle school students about John Brown’s raid and the fascinating history of Harpers Ferry.

After graduating from Penn State with a double major in History and Political Science, I went to the University of Florida for an MA and PhD in American History. My research focus is on railroads, capitalism and the postwar reconstruction of the South so while I’ve moved beyond studying just the war itself, I’ve certainly kept up my interest in the Civil War Era. I have also published research in the Journal of Southern History and Southern Cultures, and I am currently working on revising my dissertation for publication as a manuscript.

I graduated from UF in 2013 and currently I am an Assistant Professor of History at Lees-McRae College, a small 4-year college in western North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains. I teach American history courses on a wide range of topics, including a 400-level course on the Civil War and Reconstruction, so its safe to say I’ve come full circle since my time at Penn State!  Penn State’s outstanding faculty in the history of the Civil War Era and the wonderful resources of the Richards Center certainly played a huge role in putting me on this path.

William D. Bryan

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William D. Bryan

One of the reasons I decided to come to Penn State for my graduate training was the George and Ann Richards Civil War Era Center. A lot of universities provide funding for outside speakers and graduate student research, but the Richards Center really is unique in making public programming and graduate training part of its core mission. It links graduate students with the wonderful faculty at Penn State and with historians from other institutions, and truly creates an intellectual community of scholars dedicated to studying the nineteenth-century United States.

As a graduate student studying environmental history I benefitted from this community (and still do!). The Civil War Era workshops, Brose lecture series, graduate student conferences, and emerging scholar workshops all provided an opportunity to hear about cutting-edge research on the nineteenth century. The Richards Center made sure that graduate students had opportunities to interact with each speaker through planned dinners, seminars, or coffee hours, and these moments gave me an opportunity to get to know other scholars in my field. The Center also provided generous support for my dissertation research and funded travel to conferences across the United States where I fleshed out my dissertation topic. This research support allowed me to publish two peer-reviewed articles in well-regarded journals as a graduate student. The Richards Center also funded my two-year stint working as the editorial assistant for The Journal of the Civil War Era, which provided me with a wonderful introduction to the world of scholarly publishing. My first opportunity to present my research to a public audience was at a Richards Center initiative in Charleston, South Carolina. Working with faculty affiliated with the Center helped me frame my work for the public, and this experience recently came in handy as I worked with Emory University and the Georgia Humanities Council to develop a seminar series on John Muir for the Atlanta public. In 2013, the Center even sponsored a Civil War era workshop that brought in two senior scholars in my field (Elliott West and James C. Cobb) to read my full dissertation and provide feedback during a day-long seminar. This helped me to establish ties with scholars outside of Penn State and gave me an opportunity to hone the conclusions of my work even before my dissertation defense. My dissertation was subsequently selected to receive Penn State’s highest dissertation award and was one of only three national finalists for all arts and humanities disciplines for the Council of Graduate Schools/ProQuest Distinguished Dissertation Award—largely because this seminar gave me such a unique opportunity to hone my work in consultation with senior scholars in my field.

In short, the Richards Center provided support at crucial moments of my graduate studies, helped me to flesh out and later hone my dissertation, and connected me with a community of scholars at Penn State and across the nation working on the history of the Civil War era. All of this has played a key role in my development as a scholar, and I am grateful to have had this unique opportunity as a graduate student.