The Summer of 2010 was the most transformative experience of my professional career. A few months prior to that summer I had quit my longtime high school/college job at Panera Bread Co. and was offered an opportunity to work a summer internship with the National Park Service at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site (ULSG) in my native hometown of St. Louis, Missouri, thanks to the help of my academic adviser at Lindenwood University. Getting this internship was important to me because I didn’t have a clear idea of what I wanted to do with history up until that point. I was 22 and fast approaching the final year of my undergraduate studies. I was a history education major but hadn’t learned a lot in my education classes, nor did I have a particularly strong interest in a historical time period, person, event, or geographical region. I was on the road to becoming a high school teacher, but I started losing my way on that road, leaving me unsure as to whether or not I should keep going on that road or if I needed to make an abrupt u-turn.
Working at ULSG exposed me to the world of public history and the joy of educating people of all ages in an informal learning setting. I learned about the challenges of interpreting the tough stuff of history like gender, slavery, and the complex legacy of the American Civil War. I was also exposed me to the privilege of working with professional public historians at the top of their craft, and it exposed me to a historical time period (the 19th century) that captivated my intellectual curiosities. I discovered Civil War blogs like Civil War Memory, Crossroads, Dead Confederates, Cosmic America (R.I.P.), and fellow ULSG ranger Bob Pollock’s …Yesterday and Today. I bought and read a crapload of books about nineteenth century history. By the end of this internship I had a much clearer idea of what I wanted to do with my professional career, although I still wasn’t completely sure.
I did my student teaching, graduated from Lindenwood in May 2011 with my teaching degree, and worked for a year as a teaching assistant and occasional substitute teacher. These experiences in the classroom were rewarding, but it became obvious to me that public history was the career path I wanted to follow and that further education was necessary to make this career a possibility. I moved to Indianapolis, Indiana, to be a part of the public history program at IUPUI in August of 2012 and worked two different internships with the Indiana State Capitol and the National Council on Public History over the next two years in addition to a full course load and the writing of my master’s thesis on the Grand Army of the Republic, Department of Indiana.
I started looking for jobs this past January in anticipation of my graduation in May. Several entry-level openings with the National Park Service in different parts of the country emerged on my radar, as did a few museum openings outside the NPS in Ohio and Indiana. I also applied for a county parks education position in a large Midwest city and received a polite rejection letter essentially stating that I lacked the experience necessary to perform the duties of the job. But a personnel switch recently occurred at ULSG, an opening popped up, and thanks to a bit of hard work and a dose of good fortune I was offered a full-time permanent position (meaning that it is not seasonal or temporary) at ULSG, back where this whole thing started.
I’m pleased to announce that I’ve accepted that job offer, and I’ll be starting as an Interpretive Park Ranger (official title: “Park Guide”) at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site on June 1. I’ll be moving back to St. Louis in a couple weeks and am anxious to get started with my training. Questions have already emerged from colleagues and professors asking me if I’d consider pursuing a Ph.D. someday, and I don’t have an answer for that right now. As I see it, I’ve successfully broken into the National Park Service “system” and will be getting valuable public history experience with the nation’s foremost history/conservation institution. I have the opportunity to give interpretive tours, create educational programs and public events, and conduct scholarly research (among many other duties). If an opportunity arises in or out of the NPS that requires a Ph.D., perhaps I will address the question at that time. Or perhaps something else will influence my decision to complete or not complete the Ph.D. I don’t know and I have no problem admitting that. What I do know is that I’m looking forward to making a livable wage doing what I love and continuing my never-ending quest to become a better historian and teacher. I also look forward to having my nights and “weekends” [off-days TBD] free to read, blog, socialize with friends and family, play music, and travel without the pressure of a full academic courseload. I have an opportunity to live a comfortable life away from the stresses of the academy and I’m going to take advantage of it.
Let’s get to work.