Remembering the Messiah College History Class of 2011

Messiah History Class of 2011 at Senior History Dinner

Last Saturday I had the privilege of watching our senior history majors receive their diplomas.  One of the great rewards of teaching in a small history department like Messiah’s (7 full-time faculty and close to 100 majors and minors) is the opportunity I have to work closely with so many students. (My longtime readers will remember that I have offered similar reflections at this time of year. See here and here.)

As a department chair I get the honor of marching with the students (rather than my fellow faculty members).  As I mingled with them in the sports complex before the processional began, I realized that I had taught most of these students in multiple classes.  I knew all their names.  The evening before I had met their parents.  And I was confident that these students had received a first-rate history education. I wish I could somehow capture the experience of graduation weekend for the high school juniors and seniors (and their parents) who I meet at college “Open House” days.

This was a rather accomplished group.  Many of them I will never forget.  One of my research assistants, Valerie, was one of the best student teachers we have graduated in the last decade.  She has also proven to be a dogged and energetic researcher.  I am glad that she will continue to work for me this summer and perhaps beyond. 

And then there is Tara, the history department work-study student and the behind-the-scenes organizer of my book tour for Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?  (Some of you have been in contact with her).  I am eager to see how she will use her history degree in what I imagine will be a non-history related field.  I am sure I will be interviewing her someday for our ongoing series “So What Can You Do With a History Major.”

Janelle is one of the best students I have ever taught.  She wants to be an American religious historian someday and I have no doubt she will be a major contributor to this field.  She is starting at Yale Divinity School on a full-ride in the fall, after turning down offers from Duke, Chicago, Virginia, and Columbia.

Early in his college career Jason switched his major from religion to history and never looked back. I will always remember some of the conversations we had about how he might use his history major in the world.  A serious Mennonite, I fully expect him to devote his life to some kind of service to others.

Christine is a brilliant student with an incredibly bright future.  She is heading off to George Washington University in the fall to study American diplomatic history.  Christine was the first Messiah student to land a spot in the prestigious Gilder-Lehrman Institute Scholars program.  She also interned at History News Network (among other places) and studied at Oxford. And perhaps more than any other student I have ever taught, she imbibed the virtues associated with the historical profession.  A political liberal, Christine wrote her senior honors thesis on Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority.  In the process she learned that history was a discipline of empathy and understanding, not moral judgment or condemnation.

I am truly proud of these students and what they have been able to accomplish in their Messiah College history careers.  I will miss them.  I am a better person for having known them.  Yes, this might sound a bit nostalgic and sentimental, but I am convinced that it is these kinds of human encounters, in the context of a community of people pursuing common interests and goals, that bring fulfillment and meaning to a life.  (Despite my academic-sounding title, I believe I argued something similar in The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in America).

I am eager to see this class head off on their “way of improvement.”  I hope, in some small way, it leads them home. 

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