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Justine Thomas ’17

Why did you decide to major in history when you attended TCNJ?

I was someone who knew from a very early age I liked history, but was not 100% certain at first that it was the right major for me. It wasn’t until speaking to several history majors at a few college open houses that I realized how much I could do with a history degree – and that I didn’t have to pursue a secondary education degree for history to be a worthwhile major. I solidified my decision during TCNJ’s accepted students’ day, where a few TCNJ history professors spoke to potential students about the major and their particular areas of focus. One of these Professors was Dr. McGreevey, whose speech about opportunities within the major and recent alumni’s career paths confirmed that I could pursue a topic I felt passionate about while making a career out of it. Once I got to TCNJ, I had the pleasure of learning from Dr. McGreevey during the Craft of History course, and it was a full circle moment confirming to me that I made the right decision.

How did your career goals materialize during your time as a history major?

Since I entered into the major knowing I would not simultaneously pursue an education degree, I made it my mission to work diligently each semester looking for external opportunities outside of my coursework to advance my career goals of working in an archive. At the time, TCNJ did not have archival/records management/museum specific coursework, but I still found history related positions on topics I was keenly interested in. These positions included on-campus research positions in the TCNJ library archives and the mentored undergraduate summer experience (MUSE), and off-campus internships at the Ewing Township Historical Society and the Warwick (NY) Historical Society. I mostly sought out these opportunities from conversations with the Department Chair (then, Dr. Paces) and my history professors asking if they knew of any archival/museum work I could get my hands on – and potentially get course credit for. These efforts culminated in the spring semester of my junior year, when I participated in The Washington Center program and took history and political science courses while pursuing a full-time internship in Washington, DC. After this experience, I felt well prepared for the next steps outside of my TCNJ years and wanted more formal collections management training to complement my research experience. Towards that end, I pursued a Master of Arts degree in Museum Studies from The George Washington University (GW).

Can you tell us about your experience at the Washington Center?

In an effort to combine my passion for history with my desired experience in museums and collections management, I chose a study abroad opportunity where I could continue my academic coursework while pursuing a full-time internship in my interested subject. Initially, I thought of studying somewhere more “abroad” than Washington, DC, but the potential career experience was too invaluable for me to pass up. The Washington Center program works with applicants to place them in relevant, approved internships, but since I wanted a role specifically in a museum setting, I independently applied to internships at several Smithsonian museums. I
was lucky enough to secure a semester-long internship in the Archives Center at the National Museum of American History (NMAH). I spent the spring semester of my junior year exploring DC, working at the Museum, taking the class “Scandalous Washington, DC History,” and building my professional development skills. It was an incredibly busy semester, but so worth it to spend the time honing my career path before deciding if museums/archives were the right step for me after graduation. I also enjoyed experiencing the sense of independence and opportunity that comes from studying “abroad” in a new city, yet still being relatively close to home. I even got a chance to visit TCNJ during my spring break.

My Archives Center internship supervisors spoke to me about my career path, sent me future job postings in DC, and wrote recommendation letters specifically speaking about my dedication and passion for the archival field. Their incredible efforts helped me get into graduate school at GW and my first job at the Smithsonian, again at NMAH. The Washington Center was one of, if not the most impactful experiences influencing my professional career.

You worked at the Smithsonian and now you work at the Federal Reserve. Can you discuss how you came to be hired in these positions and talk about your roles and responsibilities in the two jobs?
After my semester in DC, I continued to stay in contact with my supervisors from the Archives Center. I discussed with them my desire to pursue graduate school (hopefully in the DC area) asking them questions about their graduate school experiences and if they could write recommendation letters for my application. Once I eventually accepted and committed to GW, the Archives Center staff sent me a few part-time job announcements for museums in DC. One of these positions was for a public programs facilitator at the American History Museum, with the responsibility of encouraging conversations with the public around American democracy, social justice, and citizenship. Even though I knew I wanted to pursue a collection management role instead of one in museum education, I applied for the position regardless, as I figured it would be a good way to keep my foot in the door while living in DC full time. I started this part-time role in my first semester of graduate school and continued working at NMAH for several years in different capacities, each position slowly leading to the next. As part of the requirements for my Museum Studies graduate program, I even interned at the Archives Center again (this time as a processing intern – I previously focused on reference work). My most recent position at NMAH was my role as a Digital Programs Contractor supporting the Museum’s collections information and digital assets projects. Again, this was not a position explicitly related to the kind of work I imagined myself pursuing, but I wanted to remain at the museum to gain extended face time with my colleagues and nurture those connections. In this position, I documented and recorded collections information for the Museum’s system for about 3 years, while I simultaneously applied and interviewed for other jobs. When I finally learned I secured a position at the Federal Reserve Board, it was a bittersweet feeling knowing I would no longer work in a museum. But I was excited to use my research, writing, and critical thinking abilities gained from the history major in a new way. Currently, I serve as a Records and Information Management Analyst within the Board’s extensive Record’s program. I facilitate reference/FOIA requests, process records materials and ship them to offsite storage, develop and implement records policies, and manage projects standardizing collection material. I might end up back in a museum one day, but for now, I’m enjoying the space and flexibility I have to lead my own projects and expand my research and writing skills.

How did your time as a history major prepare you for this career path?

As a history major, I gained ample experience researching, reading, and writing – skills that are invaluable when pursuing any career path. I entered TCNJ woefully unprepared for the caliber of writing I needed to excel in my coursework, but with lots of late nights writing (and rewriting), thoughtful edits from my history professors, and supportive comments from my departmental peers, my skills vastly improved. Now, working for the Federal Reserve Board, I’m even more grateful for my time as a history major. It not only provided me with the skills I needed to secure the job in the first place, but gave me a chance to broaden my abilities to research and write for government specific requests. For example, a portion of time at my job is dedicated to responding to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests sent to the Board. These reference requests range in their
complexity and can sometimes require over 10 hours researching and documenting responsive materials. To complete these often time-sensitive requests, I use the same research skills I honed in my history courses, including critical evaluation of primary sources and meticulous attention to detail.

Being a history major also gave me the flexibility and time needed to pursue relevant internships outside of the academic coursework within my desired career path. Since these internships at museums, libraries, and historic sites often could be categorized as independent research or study, I could pursue these opportunities without sacrificing my academic goals. These internships and history-based research and writing experiences were by far the most effective sections of my resume that helped me get into graduate school and secure future job opportunities.

Do you feel that majoring in history is effective preparation for life in the professional world?

Absolutely – aside from the ambitious and valuable academic coursework, other history department opportunities also sharpened my leadership skills and amplified my professional development growth. During my time at TCNJ, I had the opportunity to serve as Vice President and later President of Phi Alpha Theta, the History Honor Society. We hosted events that were fun and topical, but also beneficial for students looking to pursue a career with a history degree. These included conversations with alumni of the program, a resume writing workshop, and a panel discussion with professionals in legal careers. Phi Alpha Theta members also attended
history conferences both locally and around the country. The conferences enhanced our comfort with public speaking and provided us the opportunity to practice marketing ourselves as history professionals.

The history major coursework at TCNJ also contained lessons that were helpful in the professional world. We learned to not just memorize facts and figures of history, but to construct clear and concise arguments from thorough research, which is a cross-disciplinary ability. Although not every history major or member of Phi Alpha Theta pursues a history-specific career, the skills gained inside and out of the classroom are invaluable in preparing for the professional world. Whether it be internships, networking events, conferences, or thought-provoking seminars, if I didn’t have those opportunities available to me as a history major, I would not have been nearly as well-prepared for graduate school and beyond.