By Cristina Belli
On a sunny day in September, I made a phone call home to my parents, eager to share all the wonderful experiences I was having in my first weeks at college. It was a routine conversation: How were my classes? Was I making any friends? How bad was the food? Amidst the flurry of inquiries, I quietly mentioned I had decided to declare history as my major. An uncomfortably long pause followed … and then an incredulous, “What?”
In my 18 years of life, I had always been determined to follow in my parents’ footsteps, studying economics and making a life for myself somewhere in the financial world—or maybe at the World Bank, like my father. I swore that was my destiny. That was until I took my first Principles of Economics class and realized how much I did not like economics, at all.
As my fate as an economist disintegrated, I met my true love that semester in my first college history class. History courses in undergrad are not like your typical grade-school ones. Rather than focusing alone on dates, wars, and political figures, college-level history students work to weave stories from various threads of different lengths and textures to understand humanity more fully in a manner both meticulously precise and melodically artistic. From these threads, historians dignify the past by composing an image of the rich and complex human experience from which we have sprung and in which the present grounds itself.
Unfortunately, however, passion alone does not justify a particular course of study anymore. Despite my effusive expressions of enthusiasm about my choice, the next question was always, “And what exactly are you going to do with that?” I would often end up mumbling a response that was met with my parents’ skepticism … and my uncertainty.
As my first year came to a close, I still did not have a concrete answer to that question. I had taken history classes on a number of time periods and participated in captivating research for both papers and other types of projects. I saw the world of academia and frequently cited research and professorship as career paths for my choice of major. Outside of that arena, however, I found it difficult to identify what I could do with my life after college.
As summer began and I wondered how I would fill my summer hours, the opportunity of a lifetime serendipitously presented itself: an internship at the National History Center. Not only would this work satisfy my thirst for exploring the world of history, it also promised to show me what history would do for me in the future, as both a career path and a manner of approaching the contemporary world.
My experience at the center ultimately helped me grapple with the very question looming over me. I assisted in developing a curricular program based on the NHC’s Congressional Briefing initiative. The NHC’s initiative consists of congressional briefings conducted by historian experts on a given topic, such as the upcoming briefing on incarceration. The curricular program is a syllabus outline and guide for teachers and professors to have their students hold their own briefings. The vision of this program is to help students interested in studying history understand what an invigorating world of work it will bring them to. Without prescribing a particular political position or solution, students prepare briefings that educate their audience in the historical context of a topic of interest to policy makers. As students read, analyze, and contextualize materials from the past, they work to craft a reasoned and well-supported historical narrative that contributes to current social dialogue. Students learn to value the way historical study fosters lifelong learning and the critical habits of mind that are essential for effective, engaged, and empathetic citizenship.
This project makes evident the crucial role historians play in public conversation. Whether influencing policy or drafting it, understanding history is essential to all aspects of policymaking. Every issue has a background, and we can only improve policy decisions when we understand it.
The project also shows history majors that when parents ask that crucial question—“What are you going to do with that?”—they do have an answer, and an awfully good one at that!
Cristina Belli worked as a summer intern at the National History Centre. Cristina is a sophomore at Brown University and is concentrating in History, focusing on Latin America.