Breaking out of the carrel: History majors travel for thesis

Hannah Van Demark is the most recent recipient of the Clark Fellowship. This past Oct., she traveled to Arkansas to do research for her history thesis on U.S. foreign policy under the Clinton administration. Photo By: Vassar Admissions
Hannah Van Demark is the most recent recipient of the Clark Fellowship. This past Oct., she traveled to Arkansas to do research for her history thesis on U.S. foreign policy under the Clinton administration. Photo By: Vassar Admissions
Hannah Van Demark is the most recent recipient of the Clark Fellowship. This past Oct., she traveled to Arkansas to do research for her history thesis on U.S. foreign policy under the Clinton administration. Photo By: Vassar Admissions

The philosopher Saint Augustine understood the process of learning when he claimed, “The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.” In trying to emulate this idea of education intertwined with travel, Vassar’s History Department has given major students the opportunity to visit places of academic interest under the Clark Fellowship to do research in the United States and abroad.

The Clark Fellowship went to Hannah Van Demark ’15 this past year. Although the phrase “go to the source” is common in academia, only a few observe it in its most literal sense. Van Demark did just that. This past October, she went to Little Rock, Ark. to conduct original research at the Clinton Presidential Library. Professor of History Sumita Choudhury insisted, “It is a travel fellowship, not a thesis fellowship.”

Choudhury, who gives out the grants, said the benefits of traveling for research extend beyond a student’s ability to access official documents. Some of the best moments can happen in the everyday. She said, “It’s great meeting people and going to monuments. Just walking around in the neighborhoods. You have to bring the place to life.”

Little Rock got Van Demark’s attention when its Clinton Presidential Library released thousands of Clinton records, which included never before seen details behind the United States’ consideration of military action in Haiti in the early 1990s. Van Demark had already been researching U.S. foreign policy during the Clinton administration before her travels. “Thus,” Van Demark said in an emailed statement, “writing on the 1994 U.S. intervention in Haiti seemed like a natural topic after hearing about the newly released documents this past summer.”

Most people rely on the Internet for important historical documents, but the documents that aren’t on the Internet are, in fact, absent for a reason. Because the government controls the accessibility of certain documents, historians often find information-gathering difficult. Given these thorny parameters, Van Demark said she was excited at this opportunity to see the unseen, to study the formerly hidden. “I was in Little Rock for four days and spent each of the days in the Clinton Archives from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.,” she said.

Four collection lists were particularly useful to Hannah’s research, including “the National Security Council records regarding Haiti, communications between Clinton and his National Security Advisory Anthony Lake regarding Haiti, the Administration’s record on President Jean-Bertrant Aristide of Haiti, and the records of Clinton’s National Security Council Foreign Policy Speechwriter Anthony Blinken.” Specificity, it seems, is the key to seeing history in its most honest form, Van Demark suggested.

In this case, due to the Clark Fellowship, specificity was Hannah’s friend. The Fellowship provided her the time and access to dig into primary sources that others who have written on the topic have never seen before. She said, “I was surprised where the research took me and how it ultimately made me shift the direction of my thesis.”

Though ideas and outlines can change along the way, in order to receive the Clark Fellowship, its applicants must be thoughtful about what they want to get out of the experience. Choudbury said, “The applicant must have a plan, like an itinerary. The selection of a recipient has a lot to do with clarity, goals of the project, and feasibility of the project.”

Van Demark was well prepared. Because of the sheer amount of information that can be found in archives, she contacted a few of the archivists before she arrived in Little Rock, Ark. She said, “This enabled me to prioritize the folders that I hoped to read at the library before arriving in Little Rock.”

While the tedium of research may not sound exciting to many people, Clark fellows are grateful for the chance to do what esteemed historians are doing. Van Demark stated, “It gives students an opportunity to do something they never imagined they could do.”

The past Fellowship recipient reports echo this tone of gratitude. In her post-travel report on the Hungarian Emigration after the 1956 Revolution, Sarah Siaz ’10 wrote in an emailed statement, “Without [the Clark Fellowship] I would not have the unique opportunity to research at such a great source of information as the Open Society Archives (in Budapest), that provided me with inspiration for my topic, primary sources, and with what would have been extremely hard to find, sources and information in English.”

Many of the topics researched by these Vassar students can be complex, gritty and surprising—and previously unexamined by other historians. But people like Van Demark and other Clark Fellowship recipients are doing their part to fill in the gap.

Van Demark concluded, “After being told by the History Department to ‘go to the source’ for three and a half years, having the opportunity to do original research at the Clinton Library was an incredible way to finish out my senior year.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.