Jana Sweeny

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Interviewee: Jana Sweeny
Interviewer: Olivia Brown
Date: September 22, 2016
Accession #: PHP 029
Length of Recording: 51:02
Sound Recording
Summary

Jana (Trapolino) Sweeny grew up in a number of places, but spent her junior high school and high school years in Greenville, South Carolina. In 1991, she received a Bachelor’s degree in Archaeology and Anthropology from Washington University in St. Louis. In 1995, she received a Master’s degree in Public History from the University of South Carolina. Her Master’s thesis was entitled “The South Carolina Daughters of the American Revolution and Historic Preservation.” She has spent her post-graduate career traveling the world, living in South Korea, Kuwait, and now working and living in Abuja, Nigeria. She spent 19 years working for the American Red Cross in public affairs and public relations, serving as Director of International Communications. At the time of the interview, Sweeny was working for Graphein Communication. Interview includes discussion of the challenges surrounding the transition from undergraduate to graduate education, using of public history skills in other careers outside the field, advice for students considering a graduate education, and her graduate internship with the Historic Columbia Foundation. Sweeny also reflected on her career and life following graduate school.

 

Keywords

American Red Cross | Anthropology | Archaeology | Communications | Daughters of the American Revolution | Greenville, SC | Historic Columbia | Historic Preservation | Washington University (St. Louis)

 

Transcript

Olivia Brown: For a brief introduction, my name is Olivia Brown. It is September 22, 2016 I am interviewing Jana Sweeny for USC’s Public History Program Archive, and we are conducting our interview via Skype. I am in Columbia, South Carolina and you are in Abuja, Nigeria, correct?

Jana Sweeny: (unintelligible at 0:22)

OB: Great. Why don’t we start just by hearing where you’re from originally, prior to going to South Carolina?

JS: Sure. So I was raised a little bit all over, but most years I was in South Carolina as well, I lived in Greenville through junior high and high school. Went to Washington University in St. Louis for undergrad, and then decided to come back to South Carolina for graduate school.

OB: So living in South Carolina had an impact on wanting to come back to USC?

JS: Yeah, it was more the program. There was a combination of the program, I missed living in South Carolina, and I still qualified for in-state tuition. When I had to pay for school myself versus my parents who paid for undergrad, that seemed like the right choice.

OB: What led you to applying for a Public History program?

JS: My undergraduate degree is in archaeology, and it was about a week before I graduated that it all of a sudden dawned on me that I really didn’t want to be doing archaeological field work for the rest of my life. It also pretty much required a PhD to be able to do anything in the field. I started looking around for other options, and I had a professor who sort of pushed me towards museums. I didn’t even know what I was looking for at that point. So, I took a year off after undergrad, went home, lived with my folks, worked, saved money, tried to figure out what to do, and started researching programs. A lot of them were cobbling together something that fell between the history program, the archaeology program, and trying to make something where USC was one of the only — one of the few schools at the time — that had an actual designated program where I wasn’t having to do the putting it all together myself.

OB: When you were looking at these programs, did you look at other fields like Museum Studies, Library Science, and weighed those options as well?

JS: I did, but at the time — I mean 1991 — there weren’t even as many of those, and I really wanted something in preservation, so Library Science was not my thing and did not interest me. I really wanted something that was about historic houses. It sounds silly, but when you grow up being dragged around to Williamsburg and Jamestown, and all these places growing up on the East Coast… I wanted something along those lines, it was just at that point I couldn’t even really define what that was.

OB: Just for clarification, when you were at USC it was considered the Public History program, right? As opposed to Applied History?

JS: It was still Applied History.

OB: It was Applied History, okay. That distinction is always good to define for us as well. Why don’t you tell me a little about your experience in the graduate school through the Public History program — what kind of classes you were taking that stood out, that are memorable to you even today.

JS: Sure. When I got there I wasn’t — honestly, as much research as I had done, I don’t think I did enough research to fully understand what it was that I was looking at. So I got there and figured a lot out as I went. I ended up fairly quickly settling on colonial American history, that was sort of what I had focused on in archaeology as well.

I had gone into my undergraduate program determined that I was going to focus on classical archaeology, and learned very quickly that I was never going to be able to keep up with the language requirement. Greek and Latin and Coptic, I’m just not a good language person. So I started really doing more around colonial American history.

When I was in high school my parents had sent me on this summer program through UC Berkeley that was on the James River, focused as well on colonial American archaeology, and so that’s how I decided which time frame to settle on. I knew beforehand that I was interested in the preservation side of it, so I got there and started looking into different classes.

It was a hard transition, because something that I hadn’t really thought about or realized is that I kept, in the first year, being told that I write like an anthropologist, I don’t write like a historian. I had to relearn how research was expected in a history field and how to write for that area of study. It was a little bit of a struggle. I’m trying to think of the classes that really stood out, I mean there were a number — I was there, I believe, the year Dr. Weyeneth started with the program and he was just patient and kind and willing to sort of drag me through the things I didn’t know. Dr. Cross, I don’t know if Marcia Cross is still there, but I took a couple research classes with her where she just chewed me up and spit me out because I just couldn’t write up to her standards. And thank God she did. I mean, it was miserable. I’d go home at night and cry, but ultimately I became a much better researcher, and a much better writer, for her diligence, I guess. There were a number of classes over the years that really have a lot of impact in a lot of different ways.

OB: How did you overcome this struggle of learning how to write like a historian? What kind of things did you do to try to combat that struggle for you at the beginning?

JS: I finally stopped thinking that Dr. Cross was just out to get me, and realized that if I sat down with her and learned… and Dr. Schultz as well. Connie and I spent a lot of time, with me once again almost teary in her office, and her just saying, “You have to learn a different way of doing this…” (dog whines in background) Sorry my dog is now making noise since my husband is about to walk in. (Laughter)

…and they did. They sat down with me, (dog whines) they taught me what that looks like, they gave me other peoples’ papers to read. Hold on one second. (To dog) Shush! …other peoples’ papers to read, they paired me up with other students who were doing a good job at it, and suggest I sit down with them and learn how they were writing, read their writing, get help researching. That’s really what got me through.

OB: Do you think some of these classes shaped your career interests or even your personal research during the public history program? How did it shape your class work or shape those things for you?

JS: It really didn’t. I ended up in a completely different field, which was very unintentional, but I realized quickly how important research and writing are to any profession. To this day, I’m told over and over again, “We hired you because you can write,” and that was a really powerful thing for me. I didn’t realize, because I don’t even think I’m a particularly good writer. I see a lot of people who are way better than I am, but because I learned to research, because I learned to put information together cohesively and present it in a way that is understandable, I think I’ve gotten a lot of positions in life because of that.

OB: Some of the skills that you’ve learned have translated to your career regardless of the fact that you left the public history field?

JS: Absolutely, and I think that they’ve given me an advantage because researching, especially, is another skill that people aren’t necessarily taught in all fields. So because I’ve been self-taught a lot of my career, having the ability to go and figure out where to get information, and teach myself to do different things, and to teach myself certain skills, and to prepare for different areas of interest or different things I needed to be focusing on, repeatedly has given me an advantage that others don’t necessarily have. I’m frequently told in the middle of something, “Oh, how did you know that?” Well just curiosity drove me to — well, I’m expected to write something on X — it’s not just writing it, I want to know about it, because if I don’t’ understand, I don’t think I can really convey it properly. A lot of people will just take the information and repackage it. I want to learn, and that’s really benefited me over and over again.

OB: Great. Why don’t we talk a little about this decision to leave the Public History field and what you led you to completely going out of public history, but going into a new field. Working with the American Red Cross — how has that been influential?

JS: It wasn’t a decision to leave. It was a matter of, right after I finished graduate school I got married and moved to South Korea, and obviously there wasn’t a job there for a person who specializes in colonial American history. In the area we lived in, there weren’t even museums. There was nothing really I could do in the history field, especially not speaking the language.

What I decided to do was try to focus on the sort of universal nonprofit skill sets, and do what I could to develop those until I could get back into the preservation field. Volunteer management, fundraising, and public affairs are universal — it doesn’t matter if you are working for a nonprofit that focuses on history, if you’re with a museum, if you’re working on a disease, if it’s animals… Whatever it is those skills are universal in the nonprofit world.

So that’s how I ended up at Red Cross, I sort of walked in and asked if they could use some help. When I was an intern, I was at Historic Columbia, and what was sort of the portfolio they had asked me to work on was their public affairs outreach. It was what I had on my resume at that point, some fundraising and some public affairs skills. I went to the Red Cross and started volunteering doing similar things there and when we moved back to the US, I was a full-time a volunteer I did 40, 50 hours a week with Red Cross as a volunteer. We moved back to the US, and landed in Tucson, Arizona. So I applied to a number of museums, also not looking for necessarily a colonial American focus, so I lost out on a couple jobs, and started volunteering at Red Cross there thinking, “I’ll just keep doing this until something comes along.” Then Red Cross hired me about two or three months in and it was a completely accidental career. Then 20 years later, here we are (laughter) it wasn’t intentional.

OB: Even if it’s unintentional moving out of the public history field, ever thought about trying to get back into that in some kind of way?

JS: Yeah I did. It was more a matter of Red Cross just kept giving me opportunities that led me in different directions. On the public affairs side, I got opportunity after opportunity and started to develop a reputation in the area.

I still sort of have the dream of taking those skills, and when we move back to DC going to work for a museum, going to work for Mount Vernon, going to work for the Smithsonian. We’ll see if that ever comes to fruition. It was one of those where, when you realize you’ve sort of built a reputation area, I wanted to keep going with that… I knew I was getting more opportunities at Red Cross for somebody that does not have a journalism background, that does not have a communications background, than I would anywhere else. If I tried to jump ship at a certain point, I done think that I would have — I would have had to really downgrade, and thought it was best to build up a body of work. I got to the point where I ran the Communications Department at Red Cross, and it was the highest I could go in the organization. I had 20 people who reported to me, ten contractors — so then it was like, okay that’s on my resume, I can say I’ve done this and I have enough of a skill set built that I feel like I could go to other places. Granted, then we landed in Nigeria, so now (laughter) that dream is on hold for a little bit, but one day!

OB: I want to go back and talk a little more about your time at USC, and the time you spent in the program. Do you want to talk a little about some of the takeaways of this Master’s education, whether specifically in the Public History program, or just as this larger form of higher education?

JS: I think there are a couple different things. First of all, I see over and over again that positions require a Master’s degree. I’m doing a contract position at USAID right now and they’re looking for somebody to do a longer-term contract. There was another guy who was very interested in the position who will be available longer than I will and he’s like, “I won’t get it because I don’t have Master’s degree.” He’s like, “That’s like there’s all there is to it.” The government has certain parameters. It’s not like this is a super high-level position, but there are certain hoops that they make you jump through, where you will become restricted at some point if you don’t do [them]. I think the other piece of it is exactly what we talked about earlier — learning to write is fundamental to any job you do, and a Master’s degree requires a level of writing and a skill set that undergraduate degrees just don’t always require. I went to Washington University in St. Louis — that is a tough school — and it still did not make me write to the level that the graduate program made me write to and that has just, that has built my career.

OB: Your research for your thesis — I looked that up and you wrote about South Carolina specifically, right? And the Daughters of the American Revolution. How were these resources within USC’s campus, at South Carolina, available to help you with that research?

JS: So (laughs) it was very interesting. I was trying to explain to my husband the other day — he’s younger than I am — and I was talking about how painful microfiche machines were, and how I think they destroyed my eyes because I was in the program at a time where we weren’t using the Internet, it was just starting to come into being, but the resources weren’t there. As much as I’m like, I could’ve probably written a much better paper if those resources were there, it taught me to go in to talk to people directly, and I think that’s a skill that is being lost a little bit. So much can be done, and I even see myself doing it, (unintelligible at 17:16) I can sit at my computer and cobble things together, and I have to remember and make myself get up and go to somebody and say like, “Talk me through this, explain this to me.”

That research work required me to travel around South Carolina, to go to little museums, little archives, and dig through their stuff. It actually in some ways brought me to Red Cross, because interestingly the DAR — when they had their meetings a lot of the preservation work was being done right around World War II and there was a lot of DAR meetings where they would talk about things they needed to save in their community, and then, when the meeting ended, and it said in the meeting notes, they would then roll bandages or knit socks for Red Cross. So I had this background of knowledge related to Red Cross from sifting through a gazillion little archives in South Carolina.

OB: How has that direct communication that you were talking about translated into this field in public affairs, public relations for you?

JS: That’s a skill set that sometimes, in the history field, people don’t always acquire. To be able to talk to others, to be able to ask questions, especially in the type of work that I do in a public affairs field — I write stories about people’s lives, and especially with the Red Cross about quite honestly, the worst day in people’s lives much of the time. You have to want to listen, and you have to want to be interested, and be willing to ask people about themselves. In the process of doing research, I talked to a number of women who had — who were still in the DAR, and I talked to archivists, and I talked to historians, and wanted to hear their stories of what they knew. I think it taught me how to put together questions, and ask those kinds of questions.

OB: When you were in Applied History at USC how was that Master’s program viewed within the larger history department?

JS: I feel like it had a lot of momentum at that point. I think it had a lot of support — it had, I mean, Connie and Bob were such champions of the whole thing, and they were respected historians in their own right, so I think that they were able to sort of carry the program reputation through. Of course, occasionally, some of the historians would tease us about being sort of… you’re off and doing your museum stuff and we’re doing the serious history, (laughter) but they always wanted to come and see our museum stuff, and they wanted to see what we were working on. They always showed up when there was something going on at Historic Columbia, so I think it was very good-natured. But, yeah, I think the program had a very strong reputation at that time.

OB: What about between the students within the department? Was there a lot of working together between Master’s and PhD students, or were those fields kind of separate?

JS: I don’t think so. And honestly, I’m not sure, because my reaction is no, but that may have been solely because of friends I had in the department. In my head, I talked to a lot of people that were in the regular history field that were PhDs, they were all friends. We had a very tight knit group that was always willing to help, always willing to talk to you, always willing to work with you on something, but I don’t know if that was the same experience for everyone. It was also at the time we used to have a newsletter and a social — I was the social chairman of the Applied History program — I put together new student happy hours, and that kind of stuff, so I don’t know if that drove some of it too.

OB: Do you want to talk about your role, not necessarily just the social, (laughter) but a little outside the academic part of your education? About living in Columbia and making these friends in this program?

JS: I think Bob and Connie didn’t quite know what to do with me when I proposed this idea, but it stemmed from coming in not knowing anybody. Even though I lived in South Carolina before, the friends that I had from Greenville had moved to other places. There was nobody in Columbia that I had known from my life in Greenville at that time. I had to meet new people and make new friends, and it was really important to me to have other new students come in — especially when I realized they were coming in from… you know, at least I knew South Carolina. A lot of them didn’t, and a lot of them were coming in from other states. I wanted to make sure that they had a good experience with that introduction.

A lot of the programs at USC had something like that and we really didn’t. Connie and Bob always put a lot of effort into it. They would host holiday parties, and they would do things, but I wanted to add something to make sure that new students were welcome. I remember one year we would do these happy hours. I went around and recruited from everything we could think of in Columbia for, you know, tickets to the ballet — and I have friends who were involved in a lot of these types of things — so tickets to the ballet, to different shows, to the zoo, and we gave them away as a raffle so everybody walked away with — (sneeze in background) bless you — everyone walked away with something. They had some place to go in Columbia and explore within their first week there. Go and learn something about the city, and that was a really special part of it. I’m still quite close to a handful of people that I went through school with that have all gone in different directions. I still see Connie probably twice a year when she’s in DC. We get together and have dinner and it’s lovely. It’s nice to stay that connected. Megan Brown who has gone onto the National Park Service — she and I play on the same trivia team which is full of National Park Service people. It’s full of historians, so we win all the time which is fabulous. (laughter) I don’t have them anymore, so now I’m playing on the FBI team here in Abuja and guess what. They’re really sucky at trivia, and we lose. So I want the historians back.

OB: Did you find that, of that group of friends that you had, were you one of the only ones who went out of the Public History field, are most people still working within public history?

JS: Interestingly, they’re not. So Megan still is, but a number of others have gone to different things, still trying to actively engage in their free time in public history, which I haven’t done as much. One of my close friends, Betsy Fields, works for the town of Leesburg now, which is a very historical town in Virginia, but that’s not her focus. However, she devotes a lot of her free time to preservation causes within that part of Virginia, so I see those that, even if their career has been elsewhere, they still seem to keep the passion for it and try to be engaged.

OB: Great. When you said you were thinking about applying to a graduate program, you took some time off, and you were trying to figure out what exactly you wanted out of an education. Did you seek advice from people about that and what was some of the best advice you did seek going into graduate school?

JS: You know, probably not as much as I should’ve. Because I wasn’t — I mean, my parents were very supportive of higher education, but we had moved away from South Carolina. I wasn’t in a group of friends that I had known forever, so even though some of them were headed to graduate programs, everybody did it in different time frames, so I don’t even think I knew who to ask those kinds of questions of. I did before I left undergrad, and talked to my professors there, but I didn’t really have a resource for it after I left.

OB: Reflecting back, what kind of advice might you offer?

JS: Hmm. That’s interesting. Goodness, it’s been a lot of years. (laughter) I think I went back to graduate school in some ways not knowing what else to do. I had an archaeology degree that I knew was not the right area for me, and it was a recession — I was a little afraid of what was there and didn’t really know where to find a job. I think that is something that people… A lot of people pay for graduate degrees on their own. I paid off my student loans for years, and USC is not an expensive program, and I still paid off my student loans for years. I spent 18 months in unemployment in Kuwait just for the hazardous duty pay to be able to pay off my student loans quickly.

I really think that the most important thing is for people to, if they need to take the time, take the time. Go out and figure what you want to do, try the career field you’re interested in. Some people know from day one, they just have a passion and devotion to something. But, if you’re trying to figure out which direction you’re going, take some time off and figure out what that should look like before you spend a lot of money, and a lot of time, and a lot of energy getting a degree. I think it’s really important to eventually do it, and I see a lot of friends go back to grad school, but make sure you’re going in a field you’re truly passionate about and truly want to be engaged in.

OB: You talked about some of the challenges that you faced when you were in graduate school: paying for school, this struggle of learning how to be a graduate student. What were some of the other challenges that stood out as part of this graduate experience?

JS: Goodness… I think I struggled a lot with insecurity of not knowing what — feeling like I wasn’t as smart as a lot of the other students. There were people there that were just, they were historians, they were going to be professors, and most of them are now professors, that was what they wanted to do. I had an idea of what I wanted to do, but I didn’t really know for sure. I think I struggled with some insecurities related to that. I think… it was the first time of truly being a grown up. I didn’t feel like undergrad forced me completely into that. I had the advantage of my parents paying for it, and living in a dorm for a number of years, with roommates for a number of years. Grad school was the first time I lived on my own, and really was responsible for everything. A lot of times I worked full time, and then took classes at night. They were challenges that taught me time management, and taught me efficiency, and taught me to prioritize, and those are very, very important life lessons. Sometimes they felt like a punch in the gut when they were happening, but they were very important life lessons.

OB: Yeah absolutely, and a lot of those are similar challenges I think graduate students are still facing today (laughter). You talked earlier about your internship with Historic Columbia and about what you were doing for them. Do you want to elaborate more on that experience?

JS: Yeah it was a really good experience. I can’t even remember the name of the house I worked in because they had a few houses, and we were scattered between them, but it had this huge staircase. It was the nicest office I’ve ever had to this day, and I feel like I’ve perpetually gone downhill in offices since that one, which had a fireplace and a bathroom, because that’s what you get when you work in a historic house. There are some nice advantages to working in historic homes.

It was an interesting experience because it was one of the first times that, because I was working while I was in grad school, but it was the first time I was working in my field, so I really wanted to prove myself. It was a nice thing, because a lot of us were scattered around Columbia working for different museums, different parts of Historic Columbia, and it was a nice camaraderie to learn from each other, and to be in this beautiful place that I was passionate about and I cared about.

I have to tell you one of the funny stories about that. The one thing that Historic Columbia was sort of known for is that there were weddings at this — I wish I could remember which house it was — there were weddings at the house often. I was in charge of taking brides around, showing them the house, and explaining the rental fees and the whole thing. What people loved about it was there was this big, grand staircase, so it was this great place to make an entrance, right? And my office was upstairs. So one day I come running out of my office to meet this couple, and was running late, and I literally hit the top stair and just slipped and skidded like all the way down the stairs on my butt. Just boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. They looked and me and said, “Thank you, but no,” and turned around and walked right out of the house (laughter) and we lost the deal.

I mean I did everything from writing — I wrote their newsletter — I also helped rearrange the flower arrangements at Christmas, like when the magnolia leaves started dying in the flower arrangements, because that’s where the money came from. People rented that house for holiday parties. It’s like, you got to get out there, and go out in my little work outfit and cut magnolia branches and re-pluck the arrangements so they look pretty for the next party. It was a really good broad range of experiences, and it was also a job that taught me there’s no job where you’re not going to be expected to do everything, you know? If you’ve got to cut the magnolia branches, if you’ve got to take out the trash, take out the trash. You will never be above that because at some point that job is going to have to get done, and that person might not be here who’s technically responsible for it. Go do it if you want what you’re doing to be a success. So it was good, it was good to learn.

OB: So some of those skills also translated into your later life?

JS: Oh absolutely! One of the other very funny stories about that place was that the bride’s dressing room was my office. So one day, I came in and I assume the cleaning crew thought this was what was happening… but I guess a bride had changed, she had left her underwear and the cleaning crew had put it in my desk drawer. I don’t know if they assumed it was mine (laughter)

OB: Oh no (laughs)

JS: So on Monday, I went in my desk drawer to get a pen and there were somebody’s undies in my desk drawer. (Laughter)

OB: Interesting stories that you at least get out of that experience, right? As someone who studied colonial American history, archaeology, historic homes, and then you found yourself living in all of these countries abroad, how has your prior experience as an American historian, in some capacity, translated to all of these international experiences that you’ve had in life?

JS: It’s interesting because a number of the countries that I’ve lived in don’t have the appreciation for history. Nigeria certainly doesn’t, Kuwait was a much more modern country that doesn’t have the history, and I think it just reminds me every time I’m home how important it is to preserve a culture, and to preserve a history. What a luxury in some ways we have as Americans to have the resources, and the time, and the people have the individual commitment to volunteer at museums, to volunteer in historic homes, to donate money, to save things that are important to us as a nation. I think what it has done is make me incredibly appreciative that we have that mindset, and that people will continue to fight for keeping and preserving our history.

OB: Have you noticed any efforts in these other countries that you’ve lived in to maybe start this kind of path?

JS: Not as much. I bet you Korea now does. I was there in ’96, so it was right after the Olympics, they were very focused on becoming modern. That was the goal right then was to make their country modern, so they weren’t looking at their history as much, except for at some palaces and some areas they had that were clearly a very important part of their culture. My guess is that as they have become a wealthier country, a country that now has some of the luxuries we do, they’re doing more of that. Other countries… no I haven’t seen as much of the movement towards that. I lived in Europe for a while as well, and that obviously, they’re into preserving their culture, but when you’re — especially in a country like Nigeria where there is such a focus on just being able to survive day to day — there’s no room for thinking about preserving your culture.

OB: When you were living in Columbia at USC, did you find a lot of resources outside of the history department that were helpful to you? Within the larger university or city environment?

JS: (unintelligible at 36:46) One of the nice things about USC is that they had placed so many graduates in different things around the city. In museums and archives and different things, so there was a large resource to draw on, just for guidance, or advice, or internships.

They really worked on, and still work on, keeping that network of graduates together, and I think that’s been incredibly beneficial to all. The idea that I still get notifications of jobs, that I still stay on this alumni network that helps all of us stay abreast of what’s going on. I still get the things inviting me to happy hour at different conferences. When I’m in DC and they happen to be in DC, I go and try to keep up with folks to hear what they’re doing and hear what they’re working on. I think Bob and Connie put a lot of effort into that and I think it’s really paid off. Paid off at the time and I think it’s paying off now.

OB: The extensive alumni network is what we’ve been using for this project that we’re conducting. When you saw the email from Dr. Allison Marsh, what motivated you to volunteer to be interviewed, to be part of this project that we’re doing?

JS: I had been told by some folks that still stay pretty connected with the program, that the program has been losing attendance over the years, which to me is really — it’s sad, and I don’t want to see that happen. So to be involved in this project, if it was a way that — you know I don’t know what the end result of this will be, but some of the surveys that have been sent out recently… If we can come up with ways to make the program… I’m not sure what’s driving it but what can we add and what are other ways we can think about what this program looks like, or additions that can be made to help people find jobs. I don’t know if that’s what’s driving it, is that people aren’t finding the jobs they want afterwards.

 

One of the things that I think is really important is to integrate more nonprofit skill set into what we do so that people who graduate do have volunteer management skills. So if there isn’t the perfect history job open on day one, you know what? You can go manage volunteers at the hospital in town, and you can build your resume with whichever direction you can go at the time. We’re going to continue to see rises and falls in the economy, which devastates the history industry. Of all places, museums are ones that cannot hire when the economy comes apart — they stop getting funding, they don’t have the resources they used to have. Giving people a base skill set that they can go to other nonprofits, they can go into other lines of work for a temporary period of time and build their skills to then bring that back to the history field. You don’t necessarily need to work specifically in conservation, you can be an accountant for a museum, you can be a public affairs person, you can be a spokesperson, you can do fundraising, and growing those skill sets I think would be really beneficial to students in the long run.

OB: How would you say the skill sets of history can help translate into these other fields as well?

JS: I think that the research piece is a really big piece. Learning to research is profoundly important. Learning where to go for information, and how to gather information. I can’t tell you how many skills I’ve taught myself over the years. I’ve been like, “I have no idea how to do this, but I just told somebody, I applied to a job where I said, for the most part I can figure this out.” It even happened recently because I went from managing a very large team and leading a very large team which means you stop doing, you stop certain skill sets because you’re no longer… I’m responsible for making sure our social media program works, I’m not responsible for posting something on it. Now, because I’m doing these contract positions where I’m the only person there, where I’m like, “How do I do this? How do I actually press the button? How do I make something happen?” It’s as simple as that. Alright, let’s learn how to do this, let’s research this, let’s teach myself these skills. I think that was probably one of the more invaluable tools. Knowing that information is out there if you want it, go find it. Go find it and put it together.

OB: When you reflect on your Master’s experience, your time in the Applied History program at USC — if people ask you about this experience in your life, what is the answer you tend to gear towards? What are the things you remember the most?

JS: It’s interesting because the graduate program is something I’m really profoundly grateful for. It’s more undergrad when people ask me about that because I went to a private university and I honestly don’t know if I would repeat that experience. I don’t know that paying the kind of money that, and granted, my parents paid for it. Having my parents pay for the kind of education. I don’t know that the quality — the quality of education was excellent — I don’t know if that translated into a better life, better job opportunities, where I feel like USC did. I mean I feel like for what I paid — what it cost time-wise, work-wise, and dollar-wise, the things that I learned from that have been way more beneficial in a lot of ways. Undergraduate was a check the box, I had to do it.

I’m very glad that I went back to a state school, I think that financially was absolutely the right decision. I can’t imagine — I mean I came out with $20,000 in student loans — I can’t imagine coming out of a private university of graduate school with $100,000 in student loans. That’s just insane.

I feel like I have professors who cared. I think they thought I was a little nuts sometimes, and they didn’t quite know how I fit into some of the stuff, but they cared and continued to care about my career. They’ve continued to be advocates and supporters. The idea that I left this field and my professors still care about where I am and how I’m doing is incredibly important to me. Connie made sure to get together right before we moved here. She and I went to dinner with a few other alumni in DC right before we left, and that was really — it meant a lot to me that she took the time to do that.

I think one of the most interesting things was Bob, a few years ago, we were at some kind of event, and he said — it might have been Connie’s retirement, actually — he said to me, he was like, “I don’t understand how you do what you do now,” because at that point I was the spokesperson for Red Cross. I was on CNN a lot, I was on a lot of news broadcasts often, and he would see me on those. He said, “I don’t understand, how did you learn to do that? Nobody taught you to do that.” I was like, “No, but you taught me to think critically. You taught me to research. Even if it’s just taking a few minutes to understand the topic I’m discussing and look into a little bit further. You taught me to put together my thoughts cohesively” — and that’s what it takes to be a good spokesperson. Granted, I had to work on my own to talk in soundbites, because that is not something academics tend to do, (laughter) but they did teach me to think critically and to use the resources around me to put together a story, and to tell a story. That’s been invaluable.

OB: Part of our project that we’re trying to do here is we want to take these collections of the experiences of the alumni of this program and hopefully translate those into some possible change going forward, to see some improvements on the experiences that others had. You talked about integrating these nonprofit skills — what else would you say is part of your vision, what you would like to see the legacy of this Public History/Applied History program going forward?

JS: Honestly, I don’t know enough about what’s happening in the program right now to feel like I can offer good insight. On that, I think…yeah I think that really the only thing is building some of those additional skill sets and outlets for people, because we need to make sure that students are prepared to face whatever economic environment they walk into at graduation. You just don’t know how that will look like. I think continuing the alumni networking is incredibly important. I really don’t want to comment because I’m not quite sure where the department stands these days in some things, and I don’t think it’s always fair to armchair quarterback if you haven’t been around for — at this point, it’s been 20 years.

OB: No problem, I understand. Anything else you want to add as we wrap up today? Anything else you can think of about your time at USC?

JS: You know it was really important time in my life, and I’m quite grateful for both the academic experience, the social experience, and for Columbia. I miss Columbia — it’s a great town that has gotten better all the time. I had to go back for work a few years ago and it’s like oh my god, (laughter) so much had changed, there were great restaurants. I miss it, I miss the opportunity to be there. I’m profoundly grateful for both the positive things and the challenges it presented. One of the hardest moments was part of my dissertation — my thesis — got rejected. You feel like you’re getting punched in the gut, but it teaches you that things are not always going to go the way you want them to, and you have to figure out how to resolve that. There were some people I saw walk away when they couldn’t handle the pressure that came with that kind of rejection, but because we had an environment around us that was super encouraging, even when you failed they wanted to see you not fail. That taught me to sort of pick myself up, and that I wasn’t always going to get the smiley face and the big star the first time. I had to earn it and that was really important to learn.

OB: Was that a different thesis topic than the one you ended up writing on?

JS: No, I can’t remember if it was chapter two or three, one of them was just like… I remember Bob — the funny thing is that I don’t even know if he knows this to this day — he was talking about how bad that chapter was. He didn’t even know I was standing outside his office and I fled, I literally fled the scene. I just couldn’t face him, I didn’t know what to do (laughter) and it took me a couple days to be able to go into his office and then, of course, because he had his professional face on, because he didn’t know I heard any of this, he was very, you know, “Here’s what we need to do, here’s what you need to adjust it, and here’s—” and I did. I ended up graduating a semester later than I thought I would, but you know what, I got through it and I got done. Sometimes it’s just a little harder road than you think it’s going to be.

OB: Well I want to thank you so much for taking time — five hours ahead of where I am right now (laughter) — to talk to me about all of these things and for participating in our project as well.

JS: I’m just grateful you all are doing this. I’m grateful that there’s a momentum and a commitment to the program to keep it going, because like I said, even 20 years later, I feel like it benefits me on a regular basis, that I was part of it and that I’m still connected to, so I don’t ever want to see it not have the same kind of reputation and power that it does today. I think the work you’re doing right now is addressing that and helping with that, and that’s incredibly important, so thank you for doing it.

OB: Absolutely, I’ll be in touch with you and I’ll send you some updates of our project as we go through this semester as well.

JS: That sounds great, tell everybody hello for me! (Laughter)

OB: I will, absolutely, thanks so much again. Have a great night.

End of Interview