Monday, May 9, 2011

History Major - Really?

By John Fierst

Cynthia Engerson, who is working in the archival processing room with Marian Matyn, is a third year history major and a member of Phi Alpha Theta, the History Honors Club. She began her career at CMU majoring in health fitness but switched majors in her sophomore year. I first had a chance to talk with Cynthia when she asked me to be on a panel that Phi Alpha Theta was putting together. When I asked the reason for switching majors, she said that the passion wasn’t there for her first major but that she had always had a strong interest in history, colonial American history in particular. 

The purpose of the panel she was helping to put together was to discuss graduate school requirements for history students. On April 7th at 8:00 p.m. in Powers Hall, members of Phi Alpha Theta and a panel consisting of myself and three other professors—Jay Martin, Eric Johnson, and Greg Smith—met and discussed the pleasures and the pitfalls of pursuing a graduate degree in history. The discussion lasted two hours. Each of the panelists had followed a very different path to graduate study. When I talked with Cynthia later, she reported the students had been pleased, even inspired, by the turns the discussion had taken. That was quite a compliment. Most helpful to her were the life stories the panelists told, which suggested there wasn’t one right path to graduate school and that you should not apply to graduate school before you are ready. 

I realized I had gotten a lot out of the discussion also. Today, when there is such emphasis on the practical side of education,  it is wonderful to listen to students’ talk about the love they have for the subjects they study. Switching her major, Cynthia related, was one of the most difficult choices she had ever confronted. It is the kind of decision that takes courage. But it’s also the kind of choice many of us later in life regret never having made.