But what can a person do with a history major?
This is a common question here in Swift Hall, home of the Vassar History Department. Posed by current students, by high school students considering Vassar, and — perhaps most often! — by the parents of those students, understandably concerned about what their son or daughter might find by way of gainful employment after graduation.
In 2002, the History Majors Committee (an elected committee of students) decided to find some answers to this age-old query. As good historians always do, they went “straight to the source,” writing to Vassar graduates who, over the past generation or so, had majored in History. They asked alums to tell us how skills learned in Swift Hall had helped them on their way in years since.
With the generous help of Willa McCarthy at the Alumnae and Alumni of Vassar College, the letter went out to every History alum who had graduated in even-numbered years between 1974 and 2000 — several hundred in all. The responses that came pouring back revealed that History majors have gone down all sorts of interesting paths since leaving the hallowed halls of Swift. Living everywhere from Poughkeepsie and Paris to Mauritania and Geneva, from Bahrain and Baltimore to Vienna and Rome (Georgia!), from London and China to Los Angeles and Nairobi, they have pursued a remarkable array of careers. Perhaps it is no surprise that teachers and lawyers abound, though the range of jobs in those two fields — from elementary school through graduate school, from children’s advocacy and environmental law to the Consumer Product Safety Commission and assistant city attorney — is striking. But we also heard from people in callings less predictable for a History major: rabbis and doctors, judges and bankers, archivists and architects answered our letter, along with alums who ran a magazine or owned a public relations agency, who worked on Wall Street or at Sotheby’s, who were hired by Carnegie Hall or ABC, who served in the Army or the Peace Corps.
It was a pleasure to become acquainted with such an imposing cast of people. It was not a pleasure to realize that we would not be able to post on this web site more than a fraction of the scores of responses we received. Thus began the daunting task of winnowing this rich harvest to a manageable, but representative, size. Fortunately, many people besides Willa McCarthy at AAVC helped with the tasks (daunting and otherwise) of collecting, transcribing, and selecting submissions. The 2001-02 History Majors Committee, led by Department Intern Meghan Carey, got the project under way, and the 2002-03 Intern, Kelly Shannon, helped bring it to completion. Claire Graham, Vassar’s Director of Career Development, lent us her expertise in the early stages. From the project’s very beginning to its very end, the History Department’s Administrative Assistant, Norma Torney, offered advice and wisdom, along with her skill at deciphering handwriting! Most of all, however, I am grateful to the many History alumni/ae who took the time and trouble to respond to our query. I apologize in advance to those who do not see their stories here. It is my hope that, in future, the tales included will rotate so that more voices will be heard.
And lastly, a few editorial matters, as befits a document crafted by historians. Silently correcting the stray typo and fixing the occasional punctuation problem, I have also accepted many respondents’ invitation to condense some accounts where needed, and have done so — on this web document only! — without the ellipses ordinarily required of all scholars. Finally, to protect the anonymity that some requested, names of all have been omitted.
I always tell my students that, when reading a primary text for the first time, they should skip the editor’s introduction and dive right into the source itself. If you have not already done so — and are, therefore, reading this! — I invite you to plunge in now. Enjoy!
James H. Merrell
Lucy Maynard Salmon Professor of History
Chair, Department of History, 2000-2003