Iris Swaney is a second year history graduate student. She graduated from Virginia Tech in 2018 with her bachelor’s in history. Her research interests are focused on the history of second-wave feminism, the battered women’s movement, and oral history. During the summer of 2020, she interned at the Women’s Resource Center of the New River Valley in Radford, Virginia.
Explain why you said “yes” to this particular internship. Why did this particular opportunity make sense for you in light of your research interests, career goals, the skills you already have, and even your personality?
Hailing from Northern Virginia but considering Blacksburg as my home away from home, I’ve quickly gained a love for the New River Valley through my time as an undergraduate and graduate student at Tech. My appreciation for studying history came from a handful of history teachers I had in high school– they made a subject I had previously seen as boring and just dates or names into a subject that was central to understanding our existence as human beings. Those teachers taught me that history is all about stories filled with tragedy, victory, and humanity, and that by learning about the past, we can better understand our present.
My research is centered around the Women’s Resource Center, and more broadly, how feminism operated and continues to operate in the formal institutions of the New River Valley. I completely lucked out with the opportunity to intern at the WRC while also working on research about it. It all started when, during my first month in the M.A. program while taking the intro public history class, Dr. Jessica Taylor approached me with the opportunity to interview the long-time executive director of the WRC, Pat Brown, an influential and important individual both within the WRC and the larger community. At first, I was intimidated and nervous just thinking about interviewing someone, especially someone like Pat– I had never formally interviewed someone for an oral history and had no idea where to begin. But I trusted Dr. Taylor and I knew that oral history seemed exciting to me, so I said yes.
The interview with Pat Brown was probably the best introduction to oral history that anyone could ask for. I learned that conducting good oral history means combining a lot of things– preparing some questions, doing some research about the interviewee, and also, and maybe most importantly, creating a sense of connection and allowing the interviewee to tell the stories that are important to them. That interview sparked my interest with the WRC, how they describe themselves, and the work that they’ve been doing for the community since 1977 that turned into my thesis project.
Dr. Taylor, the staff at the WRC, and Anthony Wright de Hernandez at Special Collections and University Archives, helped me develop an internship that would offer the WRC a service and myself an opportunity to get to know their records. That turned into me processing their historical collections and creating a finding aid that will prove beneficial to both the WRC internally, as well as other researchers like myself in the future.
Although I knew very little about how to approach processing a collection, I was eager to learn and get my hands on actual materials. The ability to see the other side of a collection, where historians generally only see the “finished side” after processing, allowed me to understand much more deeply why and how finding aids are written in a certain way. Processing a collection meant putting myself into the minds of future researchers who may be looking for much different information than what I need for my thesis.
Processing a collection, especially one with 100 or more items like at the WRC, also means being persistently and meticulously organized, which is something I weirdly enjoy. There’s something about sorting, writing lists, and keeping things orderly that gives me satisfaction. Even though I didn’t know exactly what I’d be getting into before the internship started, I knew that my Marie Kondo mind would love organizing a cluttered pile of files into something useful and easy to look at.
I said yes to the internship because it was a perfect fit with my research interests and my drive to learn about the ins and outs of processing a collection. I lucked out by being able to work directly with the materials I am studying, which made the decision to say yes to this internship an easy one!