How a Summer Internship Helped Me Find My Calling

December 03, 2008

Cameron Brickhouse is a fourth-year University of Virginia student majoring in African-American and African Studies. Her essay appears in the fall e-newsletter from the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies.

December 3, 2008 — Before last summer, I always dreaded the question, "What are you going to do with a double-major in African-American and African Studies and anthropology?"

Often the interrogator would imply that my majors were impractical and not viable for pursuing a career in today's economy. Others would state that my academic preparation could lead only to a job in academia.

My internship last summer with the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, however, opened new possibilities for me. I am now finally able to answer that dreaded question — not just for those who ask it, but also for myself. The answer: pursue a career in public history.

My internship was made possible through the Institute for Public History at the University of Virginia. The IPH Summer Internship Program took my academic background and qualifications into account when pairing me with the African American Heritage Program at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.

The VFH is a wonderful and influential public organization in Charlottesville whose mission is "to develop the civic, cultural and intellectual life of the Commonwealth by creating learning opportunities for all Virginians," as it says on the Web site, www.virginiafoundation.org.

Primarily a research initiative, the African American Heritage Program is one of the VFH's many public programs, which provide opportunities for outreach, development and education. Taken together, these programs seek to "remember, interpret and celebrate" African-American history and culture in Virginia.

I was fortunate to be mentored by Christina Draper, director emerita of the program. We worked on the African American Heritage Database, an extensive Web site that describes over 400 historical sites located throughout Virginia. My work consisted primarily of research, verification and historical write-ups for the database, which reinforced and augmented my knowledge of African-American history.

I found that my coursework in African-American Studies at U.Va. had prepared me well for this internship. Historically, so much of the African-American experience — in slavery and in freedom — has been marginalized. The efforts to retrieve and recount this history through the African American Heritage Database enabled me to better understand the making of race in Virginia, as well as throughout the nation.

My internship also provided occasions for community outreach and instruction, about both of which I am passionate. I was excited to assist in teacher education and curriculum development efforts. I also enjoyed providing support for public events that promoted community and celebrated African-American history, such as the dedication of the Civil Rights Memorial in Richmond, the African-American Cultural Festival in Charlottesville, and the Juneteenth Festival at Piedmont Virginia Community College.

Not only did I gain a fuller appreciation for African-American heritage in Virginia, but my summer internship also exposed me to the inner workings of a foundation dedicated to public history. I was able to observe how research findings are collected, organized and presented to the general public in numerous compelling ways, such as traveling exhibits, Web sites and publications. As I watched the directors of various units at the VFH, such as the Grants and Public Programs division, the Virginia Folk Life Program, the Virginia Indian Heritage Program, the Center for the Book and the African American Heritage Program, I knew theirs were important undertakings to which I wanted to contribute. Public history is a diverse and expansive field encompassing museums and historical preservation societies, historical consulting firms, and state or federal grant-making agencies. It entails a balance of administration, scholarship and program implementation.

My internship experience this summer has proved formative as I pursue the possibility of graduate work in public history and/or African-American Studies. My advice to African-American Studies, majors is simple: When you ask yourself what you can do with your degree, don't limit yourself to teaching, law school or seeking a "standard" job in corporate America. There are so many more options available. My suggestion — check out public history.

— By Cameron Brickhouse