History Day 2020: Connecting college to career with CSU alumni

Story by Ariel Schnee

On March 6, the Public Lands History Center at Colorado State University welcomed 40 high school students from Rocky Mountain High School and Berthoud High School to campus for History Day, a collaborative program that raises awareness of the history major and career options for historians. I

PLHC Program Manager Ariel Schnee and RMHS teacher Kurt Knierim developed History Day in 2018 at the PLHC’s field workshop Parks as Portals to Learning.

Schnee and Knierim realized that students lacked an awareness of the full scope of careers available to them until well into graduate school. But what would happen, they wondered, if they exposed students to all their options eight to 10 years earlier than normal?

Students at History Day

Career paths less traveled

While museum jobs and tenure-track academic positions aren’t as plentiful as they used to be, fields like cultural resource management and historic preservation are growing. Communities and local governments need these types of positions to assist with their urban planning strategies, as well as heritage tourism initiatives. Some of this work is the result of federally mandated historical research and surveys associated with the National Historic Preservation Act and the National Environmental Protection Act. Furthermore, the generation occupying these fields’ top jobs is poised for retirement. Consultancies and public agencies alike are finding it difficult to fill positions with qualified candidates.

History Day was created to raise awareness around these fields, their technical expertise and the many other options available to history majors. Thanks to efforts from the PLHC and its partners — such as Erika Pepmeyer and her staff at the College of Liberal Arts Office of Recruitment as well as local teachers — students got to experience a full day in the life of a CSU Ram, complete with class visits, campus tour, lunch at a dining hall with current Rams, and even a session of history Jeopardy, hosted by Phi Alpha Theta and the CSU History Club.

Students at History Day

CSU historians’ versatile toolkits

The day started with a career panel. Panelists spoke about their lives and paths outside of academia, and students learned what former history majors went on to do with their degrees after graduation from CSU. Moderated by CSU alumnus Knierim, the panel represented a range of career paths, from Pinyon Environmental Inc. architectural historian Poppie Gullett to and Madwire lead content marketing specialist Sam Iven.

Others went into public service, like City of Fort Collins historic preservation planner Jim Bertolini. Berthoud High School teacher Kayla Steele also participated, telling students about her path towards secondary education instruction — a route she said she never thought she’d take. Some of the panelists’ careers even led them back to CSU. History instructor Adam Thomas found his way back into academia after a stint in various careers, eventually finding a role at CSU that allows him to function as an entrepreneur and educator.

Students playing Jeopardy at History Day

Lasting educational and career impacts

At times, the panelists waxed poetic about the power of the historical discipline, and about the institution that had shaped them at key points in their education. Later, the panelists turned humorous, recalling specific teachers who had attracted them to history through their eccentricities and storytelling skills. Thomas wryly recalled being interrogated by his family about his career plans in history — “What are you going to do,” they asked him, “open a history store?” In response, he joked, he founded Historitecture, a bona fide “history store.” As lead consultant and founder, he assists clients with documenting and surveying historic buildings and resources.

The panelists took different routes to their current professions. However, they agreed that the skills they acquired at CSU were decisive in building the competencies in writing, research and problem-solving that they rely on in their careers. They also agreed it was the professors and teachers at CSU that had been the most influential in shaping them, as professionals and, occasionally, as people.

Future History Days

Programs like History Day are part of the PLHC’s mission of engaging students in history and building partnerships that reach beyond the typical scope of academia — extending to federal, state and local agencies as well as into the community by engaging with students and teachers at all levels. The PLHC hopes to continue to expand this collaborative program to include additional schools in the future.

Colorado high school educators interested in participating in History Day 2021 can contact Schnee at ariel.schnee@colostate.edu to learn how students can join the next session.

CSU University Communications Staff