One Short Week in Denver: An Undergraduate History Club Goes to the AHA Annual Meeting

By Blanca Drapeau

There we were. A small group of Californian undergrads, winter layers piled over our business casual attire, perusing the AHA 2017 annual meeting program over coffee and pastries. We discussed panels that piqued our interests, excitedly pointing out historians we’d read for our courses and asking each other about unfamiliar terms. Last year was my senior year at Humboldt State University and the second year I attended the AHA annual meeting with our History Club. I was president of our club and the only student attending who had gone to another annual meeting. A semester of planning and fundraising efforts all came down to one incredible short week in Denver.

Humboldt State University History Club members peruse the annual meeting program in Denver. Courtesy of Blanca Drapeau

Humboldt State has a well-established tradition of history majors attending AHA annual meetings. The History Club, which organizes the trip, is open to all students, but a vast majority of its members are in the history program. The club meets once a week to discuss historical topics and provide academic support. Our elevator pitch to new members always includes the opportunity to attend the annual meeting. (Last year, it was simply, “we’re taking a trip to Denver this year for a history conference.”) As soon as the fall semester begins, members who wish to attend the annual meeting start fundraising for the trip.

We generally take a multi-pronged approach to fundraising. Last year, for four days a week, we organized a snack table in our department’s building. HSU (Humboldt State University) also stands for Hills, Stairs, & Umbrellas—most days walking to and from Founders Hall to any other snack shop between classes is an undertaking—and the ease of access served our snack table well. In our experience, the table has proved to be a reliable form of funding for our group. We also applied for grants through our school’s clubs office, successfully receiving the maximum amount of funds granted each year. Additionally, we held rummage/book sales—our professors were amazing and donated boxes of books!

Most of the funds we collected went toward attending the annual meeting, particularly meeting registration and housing. In Denver, the club decided to share a house with a large kitchen and living room. The space allowed us to gather at the beginning and end of each day for a beverage and a bite and to discuss what excitement we had run into at the meeting or what we were looking forward to the next day. The shared space really gave us an opportunity to collectively reflect on our mutual interest in history. We also kept a group chat going for the duration of the meeting, checking in and sharing with each other interesting panels, offering extra caution when walking into a panel where CNN was filming, or alerting each other of places that had free cookies and coffee—you know, the important stuff.

Each annual meeting that I’ve attended with the History Club had some defining moments for me and the other students. Two panels in particular stick out the most in my memory from the first meeting. One, which a majority of club members attended, featured three doctoral candidates. Following the discussion, a club member mentioned that the panel helped them realize how our coursework supports a future in academics, and the fact that a doctorate is an achievable goal.

AHA President Tyler Stovall chats with Humboldt State University History Club members during a reception at the 131st annual meeting in Denver. Courtesy of Blanca Drapeau

The second was a panel including our professor Leena Dallasheh. Hearing about the different programs and groups that she was involved in emphasized to us that our professors, as historians, have work and lives beyond the university. In hindsight that seems obvious, but as students we’re often so focused on our own coursework and obligations that we sometimes neglect to see the bigger picture. The annual meeting is the big picture, highlighting different history organizations, careers, and subjects that undergrads typically have limited exposure to.

At the second annual meeting I attended, we spent most of our days attending panels and networking at the receptions. Professor Dallasheh, reflecting on our visit, commented that, in engaging and interacting with a range of individuals at the meeting, including the AHA president, my History Club peers and I were expressing our “self-identification as historians.” She called on historians in general “to create a larger space for undergrads in these events where they can learn and gain experience in the field, and also contribute greatly to its continued development in face of growing challenges.”

A standout session for me at both meetings was the Career Fair. Meeting with historians who had diverse career backgrounds was an incredibly positive and encouraging experience. Booth after booth, employees told me that attending the annual meeting as an undergrad and getting as much career advice as possible put us in a better position than many graduate students. Many revealed what they wished they had known as undergrads and how the field had changed since they started. I am sincerely grateful to everyone who took the time to speak with me and the other students.

I also benefitted simply from spending more focused time with my professors and peers. I gained a better understanding of why my peers started studying history in the first place: all for different reasons and fields of interest. The time spent with our professors resulted in better advising throughout the year. Without them, I would have struggled to find my focus. Developing these relationships supported me through my final semester as a senior.

For some of us, attending the annual meeting solidified the decision to go to graduate school. For others, it encouraged us to explore alternative career paths after graduation. Overall, attending the annual meeting was a pivotal moment in many of our academic careers, exposing us to the range of ways it’s possible to be a historian.

Blanca Drapeau received a BA in history and certificate in museum and gallery practices from Humboldt State University in May 2017. In summer 2017, she was selected and participated in the HACU Cooperative Internship Program at the Library of Congress. She is an aspiring digital historian based in Southern California.

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