Alumni Interview with Ellen Boggs

Ellen graduated with her M.A. in History from Virginia Tech in 2018. She works in VT University Libraries as the Studios Network Coordinator, where she helps people learn about and use emerging technologies including additive manufacturing, virtual reality, and audio and video tools and processes. Her time in the public history program prepared her for engaging people from all backgrounds as well as facilitating and showcasing creative work.

Q: After graduating from Virginia Tech’s M.A. program, what have you done professionally?

I landed my current job in the University Libraries in the fall of 2018 and found myself surrounded by some of the most fun, welcoming, and creative people. On a surface level, my job does not resemble a traditional career for someone with a history M.A. But I’ve witnessed people build incredible history and storytelling projects through the technologies we offer in the library. It’s an exciting and rewarding role to play here in the Studios, especially when we support humanities students and faculty implementing 21st century tools in their work.

Q: What is one thing that you did at Virginia Tech that aided you in your professional or academic path?

I’m very grateful to my M.A. advisor, Monique Dufour. She taught me so much about communicating clear messages in a thoughtful, accessible manner. I use those skills in my job every day to engage and educate public audiences, as well as the student staff team in the Studios, in the wide range of technologies we have in Newman Library. I’m also grateful to the Public History certificate program, which allows space and flexibility for people like me to explore alternative careers that build upon skills I gained as a history major and graduate student.

Q: What advice would you give current or future students wanting to pursue a path similar to yours?

You have the opportunity to get the best experience for yourself in this program. Try new things – or at least don’t say no to yourself without trying first. If you’re worried you won’t be good at something, ask the people around you to help find a starting point. There are loads of resources within and outside of the history department. I’ll always plug the library as a great resource but you can explore other departments on campus too. Some of the most exciting and effective projects come out of interdisciplinary partnerships.

Q: What has been a major challenge you have encountered in your career? How have you dealt with it?

Before entering graduate school, I had a plan for how I wanted my life to go. I had to pivot that plan pretty quickly after realizing I didn’t enjoy a traditional academic or museum work-life. I knew I wanted to stay in the area and I knew I was good at working with the public, so finding a job in the University Libraries satisfied my career and life goals. It was also tough not having a full time job right out of school. I think that’s true for a lot of humanities graduates. I was lucky to have a supportive partner and a supportive team in the library, which allowed me to step into a full time career and grow from there.

Q: What are your plans from here?

I’m really happy where I am. I plan to stay with the Studios for as long as possible. I’d love to facilitate a humanities-focused program where Studios folks bring in people from across campus and across the NRV community to demonstrate what technology can do for them and their ideas, particularly when it comes to storytelling and local histories. There’s plenty of opportunities for these kinds of projects within the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and the University Libraries, especially with the new oral history center in Special Collections. So I’m happy where I am and I look forward to what’s to come.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to share with us?

Shoutout to the history professors in Major Williams and my cohort. You all turned a stressful, demanding program into a rewarding experience. I needed the personal and academic growth from those two years to get me where I am now.

Alumni Interview with Rebecca Williams

Rebecca Williams graduated from Virginia Tech with a BA in History in 2015, and again with an MA in History with a Public History certificate in 2017. She is currently the Visitor Services & Retail Manager at the Museums at Washington and Lee University.

Q: After graduating from Virginia Tech’s M.A. program, what have you done professionally?

It took me over a year to find a full-time job in the field of public history when I graduated, but while I was on the job search, I strung together a couple of part-time positions — one of which was with the Special Collections and University Archives at Virginia Tech (my favorite of the jobs!). In summer of 2018 I began my full-time career with a great opportunity as the Museum Operations Assistant for the Museums at Washington and Lee University. I was promoted to Visitor Services & Retail Manager in October 2021. I also serve on the Board of Directors for the Miller’s House Museum in Lexington, VA and act as the VP of Community Development for the Lexington-Rockbridge Jaycees.

Q: What is one thing that you did at Virginia Tech that aided you in your professional or academic path?

Choosing to pursue the Public History certificate within my Master’s program and choosing classes that weren’t “typical” history classes (such as Digital History, where we wrote and produced podcast episodes) were extremely helpful in determining the direction I’d go in once I graduated. Public History is a great field because it’s so broad — I chose to go into museums, but the field can include pursuits such as podcasting, filmmaking, virtual tour creation, and more!

Q: What advice would you give current or future students wanting to pursue a path similar to yours?

Be prepared and try to be open to taking on experiences that might take you out of a “traditional” path or look a little different from what you imagined! I took internships in several areas of the public history field in order to pull together a toolkit of skills that could be applied to a larger array of opportunities — eventually I found the area that was best suited to my strengths.

Q: What has been a major challenge you have encountered in your career? How have you dealt with it?

I have spent my full-time museums career so far working in university museums, which is a great thing in many ways; however, when one of the museums that you oversee is the burial site of Robert E. Lee, some challenges arise — especially in my realm of visitor services and publicity. The past few years (particularly following the events in Charlottesville in 2017) have seen a considerable rise in issues and tensions related to the Confederacy, Robert E. Lee, and white supremacy — many of which boil over in different ways at our site. I spent many a public history seminar going over case studies which echoed these types of issues, but now I’m faced with them on a daily basis. I’m grateful that my education provided me with the knowledge and tools to handle these moments, but it remains challenging every day.

Q: What are your plans from here?

I really enjoy working in university settings and will likely try to continue for the foreseeable future, but you never know when the next unexpected opportunity could surprise you! I do plan to continue work in museums and/or archives for as long as possible.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to share with us?

In my (precious little) free time, I co-host a horror movie podcast with a couple of my friends. If you enjoy horror movies (the good, the bad, AND the ugly), check out Horrorscape Podcast!

Alumni Interview with Heath Furrow

Heath Furrow graduated with a BA from Virginia Tech in Fall 2008, an MA in Education in Spring 2010 and an MA in History in Spring 2019. He is currently a professional advisor with the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences at Virginia Tech.

Q: After graduating from Virginia Tech’s M.A. program, what have you done professionally?

Shortly after completing my M.A. in History I was hired on as the History Department’s Academic Advisor and Administrative Assistant. My duties included both assisting students in navigating the curriculum of the History Major and life at Virginia Tech, as well as administrative duties related to undergraduate and graduate academics. In January of 2022 I transitioned to an academic advising role with the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences as a part of the College’s move towards a centralized advising system.

Q: What is one thing that you did at Virginia Tech that aided you in your professional or academic path?

Working with undergraduate students in my role as a GA was invaluable experience that I have used in my role as an academic advisor.

Q: What advice would you give current or future students wanting to pursue a path similar to yours?

Understand that where you think you are going may not be whether you wind up. When I started the M.A. program at Virginia Tech, I thought I wanted to teach at a community college, but after graduating I found out that there were fewer opportunities in that area than I had anticipated; advising was something I had thought about as a career option, but it wasn’t my primary goal. I was fortunate that the Department of History was looking to hire an advisor right when I graduated, so I took advantage of that opportunity and found a rewarding career. Don’t expect that you will wind up doing exactly what you planned to do and don’t expect that you will be doing the same thing for the rest of your life, but know that even if things don’t work out the way you expected, you can still have a rewarding career and life.

Q: What has been a major challenge you have encountered in your career? How have you dealt with it?

One persistent challenge I have faced is managing self expectations. One of the things I like about my role as an advisor is that I have the opportunity to have a positive impact on students’ lives; the flip side of this is feeling that I have let my students down if I don’t have the right answer or don’t approach them in the right away. I have had to learn to balance recognizing when I could have done a better job with having patience with myself.

Q: What are your plans from here?

I hope to continue to serve as an academic advisor at Virginia Tech for years to come.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to share with us?

Remember that your graduate education isn’t just about checking off boxes to get a degree. This is an opportunity to grow yourself academically, professionally, and personally. If you approach your graduate education with this attitude, you will have a much more rewarding experience.

Alumni Interview with Jonathan MacDonald

Jonathan MacDonald graduated from Virginia Tech with an MA in History in 2017. He is currently a PhD student in American Studies at Brown University in Providence, RI.

Q: After graduating from Virginia Tech’s M.A. program, what have you done professionally?

I knew that I wanted to take a few years away from graduate school while I considered moving on to a PhD program, so I tried to keep my options open. The summer after I graduated, I presented material from M.A. thesis at the annual conference organized by Cheiron: The International Society for the History of Behavioral & Social Sciences. My partner and I relocated to the Washington D.C. area, where I began looking for jobs in the museum and cultural heritage field. I worked briefly as a part-time media archivist at Sirius XM, digitizing large stacks of CD-ROMS, listening to the audio, and writing descriptive metadata. After a few months, I found my way to the Folger Shakespeare Library, where I served as the Project Coordinator for the Mellon-funded interdisciplinary research project Before ‘Farm to Table’: Early Modern Foodways and Cultures [https://beforefarmtotable.folger.edu/]. As Project Coordinator, I wore a few different hats: I organized and ran conferences, public and academic-facing speaker events, administered a number of fellowships, managed budgets, edited a academic digital newsletter, and promoted events on social media. It was great way to learn new useful skills while still being immersed in a lively scholarly environment. Towards the end of this grant-funded position, I began charting my next move, and decided to return to graduate school.

Q: What is one thing that you did at Virginia Tech that aided you in your professional or academic path?

Gaining experience in organizing events and conferences was absolutely critical. I was extremely grateful that Virginia Tech afforded me a variety of experiences across my coursework and graduate assistantships. My first year, part of my assistantship hours were dedicated to helping organize Dr. Tom Ewing’s Images and Texts in Medical History Workshop. Event organizing was new to me, but I gained the confidence to head-up organizing the program’s annual Bertoti Conference in 2017. As a TA, I also participated in the early years of Dr. Ed Gitre’s American Soldier digital archive [https://americansoldierww2.org/]. More than anything, I am grateful for the supportive relationships I formed with those in my graduate cohort at Virginia Tech. I am not exaggerating when I say that we still talk every day.

Q: What advice would you give current or future students wanting to pursue a path similar to yours?

You’ve heard it before, but networking is so important. I learned about the opening at the Folger from a former undergraduate professor with whom I remained in contact. In the words of the chair of my current department, “there is no such thing as a non-professional interaction.” Keep an open mind and look for opportunities. My research at Virginia Tech had nothing to do with Early Modern European history, but the skills I developed at Virginia Tech – teamwork, conference organizing, administering projects – were critical in how I have subsequently positioned myself.

Q: What has been a major challenge you have encountered in your career? How have you dealt with it?

Finding the first job out of graduate school took time, persistence, and luck. If I could do it again, I would have spent more time planning ahead. In the initial 6 months after graduation, I strung together part-time work to keep afloat and build a resume. Start planning and applying for jobs well before you graduate. I drew on the support and guidance of my mentors, who advised me to pass on opportunities for full-time employment that did not feel like great fits. Those were very difficult decisions to make at the time but, with hindsight, were absolutely critical in getting me where I am now.

Q: What are your plans from here?

Continuing on and finishing my PhD! Beyond that, I am keeping an open mind for what comes next in my career, whether that involves a traditional university post or something along the lines of public humanities work.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to share with us?

The training, comradery, and skills I developed in Virginia Tech’s History MA program prepared my extremely well for my current PhD program. I learned so much in my graduate seminars and in the process of my thesis research and writing at Virginia Tech. I really do owe my identity as a historian and a scholar to my time in this program.