Saint Mary’s Students Discover History Through Smithsonian Internships

Smithsonian interns McKenna Decker '20 and Juliette-Monique Garcia '20 pose in front of the museum.In 2017, Saint Mary’s College received a $50,000 Humanities Access Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), which supports the School of Liberal Arts (SOLA) and the History Department’s Partners in Public History: Training Students and Engaging Communities internships. This month, two history majors embarked on their own journey as interns with the Smithsonian Institute. McKenna Decker ’20 and Juliette Garcia ’20 are the latest of four such undergraduates to attain this distinguished opportunity. They were selected from a competitive pool of Saint Mary’s undergraduate students by Smithsonian curators at the National Museum of American History.

Both students are excited for the chance to travel to Washington, D.C., and work in one of the foremost museums of its kind in the world.

“Obviously, the Smithsonian is an amazing, world-renowned museum to be able to experience,” said Garcia. “I really wanted to take the opportunity to go to the East Coast. I’ve never been there.” 

Garcia will work directly with Margaret Salazar-Porzio, the curator of Latina/o History and Culture in the Division of Home and Community Life at the Smithsonian, assisting her on a new exhibit displaying the intersection of Latina/o culture and baseball. Hopefully, this exhibit will also come to Saint Mary’s College Museum of Art museum once it is completed.

Decker is also excited about her opportunity. She visited the Smithsonian as a child, which influenced her choosing history as her field of study.

 “I always wanted to go back, and it has always been this little bubble of wonder if I could actually work there,” she said. “So, with this, I could not, not apply. And I worked in a museum over the summer in California, and I want to know more.” 

Both students are thankful to the SMC faculty and the Smithsonian for making their childhood dreams come true. They both realize the ability that this internship has to change their lives and look forward to the lifelong benefits that the History Department and SOLA have created for them.

“Being able to look back on it and say, this is what I learned, this is how it affected me, five, 10, 20 years later…” Decker began. “Being able to work under an active curator is something I’ll probably never be able to do again, especially as an undergrad.” 

These are just the latest students. Past students have also enjoyed the spectacular opportunities created by SOLA and its departments.

Past Internships

In January 2019, SMC sent Malia Allison ’21 of Seattle to the Smithsonian.

“I didn’t think I would actually get it because I was a sophomore. I felt like bunches of other people were going to apply.”

Regardless of her age, her passion propelled her to try for this exciting opportunity, where she experienced public history in a direct, hands-on way. Not only was she elated, but the whole department supported her milestone achievement: After securing her internship through the national selection process and making travel arrangements, Allison got some deflating news.

“I got really nervous because the government was still shut down right before I was going to go,” she said. “Professor [Elena] Songster said I should just go, and if the government is shut down make the most out of my experiences.” 

As many remember, the 2018–2019 government shutdown continued into late January, which not only caused national unrest but prevented this intrepid Gael from entering the “national attic,” as the Smithsonian is known.

“Unfortunately, I never actually set foot in the Smithsonian Museum because the government was shut down,” she recalled.

Even though she was unable to work in the museum, she still gained valuable experience and expanded her professional network. “I met my mentor there, and there are a bunch of other museums that are open and free to the public,” Allison said.

Allison was able to be part of a significant milestone in public history herself, Songster added. “Even though the Smithsonian was closed, that year was the largest number of Asian and Pacific Islander members of Congress,” Songster recalled. “They had a big welcoming reception for that, and so the curator invited her to attend. That was a really great experience that she couldn’t have gotten any other way,” she continued.

From this coast, Songster tracked Allison’s progress. “She wrote weekly papers for me,” the History Department chair remarked. “I set up a syllabus with a reading list about public history, and she also wrote reflection blogs,” Songster said.

Allison still believes the experience helped her mature and made her realize her own personal power and abilities. Not only did she experience public history in a tangible way, her own personal history was enriched. “I went to Washington, D.C., by myself,” she said proudly.

These types of experiences are what SMC strives to impart in all its students: holistic human growth that will make passionate leaders who “Enter to Learn, Leave to Serve.”

In addition, History major Audrey Hand ’20 earned a previous Smithsonian internship. Hand is currently studying abroad and was unavailable for comments.

 

Partners in Public History: Training Students and Engaging Communities

In December 2017, the History Department earned a $50,000 Humanities Access Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) to support the launch of this initiative. The NEH offered this award to deserving institutions that “support outstanding cultural programs for young people, communities of color, and economically disadvantaged populations,” as described in their press release.

“It really allowed us to think outside the box and think big,” Associate Professor of History Aeleah Soine said of the initiative.

In early 2018, the initiative began with a Jan Term community engagement course entitled Asian American Voices in Public History.

Soine and Assistant Vice Provost for Student Success Tracy Pascua Dea created curriculum to work with four community organizations on projects such as practicing conversation skills with English language learners; working with a food bank; creating digital timelines of community activism; curating digital archival databases; designing a Chinatown walking tour for youth; and conducting, transcribing, and translating oral histories.

The final project was the students’ own mini pop-up exhibit called How Did We Get Here: Untold Stories of Asian America, which gave them a hands-on opportunity to create and share original historical narratives, display artifacts, and design an interactive public history exhibit. Soine described the course as students “working with communities to tell their story and their history.”

The second phase of the initiative brought the National History Day Program to campus. Elementary and middle school students do “historical research projects and then they present them kind of like a science fair but with history,” Soine said. “This is a national program that has been researched and shown to create a pipeline into college for first-generation students.”

On March 10, 2018, SMC hosted the Contra Costa History Day. More than 150 schoolchildren competed in poster, exhibit, performance, essay writing, documentary, and website categories under the theme of “Conflict and Compromise.”

The grant’s final phase includes internship opportunities for history students, with the most prestigious being an internship with the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C.

“As we were working on the grant to train ourselves ­how to teach and do public history well, we went to the national conference.  We met this amazing curator from the Smithsonian: Margaret Salazar-Porzio,” Soine recalled. “She has been working at the Smithsonian to diversify the narrative of American History: to bring in communities of color, and different ethnicities and cultures and weave it into the main narrative.” 

Salazar-Porzio visited the College in September 2018, and after talking with her, the department established an agreement to support Saint Mary’s students interested in being interns during Jan Term and the summer.

SOLA and the History Department are proud to create curriculum and experiences that highlight the usefulness of the liberal arts education. As some wonder about the relevancy of the liberal arts education in this new decade, professors like Songster and Soine create meaningful connections with students through the liberal arts, igniting their curiosity while fanning the flames of social responsibility. This type of pedagogy will further prepare these students to become compassionate future leaders of their fields, industries, and eventually the society at large.

Public history is an emerging field focused on civic education and public engagement. In addition to the NEH grant, Saint Mary’s Partners in Public History program is supported by philanthropic and College resources. For more information about the Partners in Public History program, contact History Professor Aeleah Soine at ahs3@stmarys-ca.edu or visit the Saint Mary’s History Department online at stmarys-ca.edu/history.

Interested in reading more about the journeys of Saint Mary’s students in Washington, D.C.? Check out their blog!

Saint Mary’s Partners in Public History initiative is among 253 humanities projects nationwide that were funded by the NEH. The NEH Humanities Access Program provides grants to enhance humanities programs that benefit youth, communities of color, and economically disadvantaged populations. An independent federal agency, the NEH supports research and learning in history, literature, philosophy, and other areas of the humanities by funding selected, peer-reviewed proposals from around the nation. Learn more at neh.gov.