Thoughts from Alumni: Careers
Alumni Offer Words of Wisdom to the Class of 2016
Our History Students expressed an interest in hearing from History Alumni.
We met with a group of seniors in April 2016 and asked them what types of questions they would have for alumni. Narrowing it down to five questions, the Department of History received many responses from Cornell History Alumni. At the end of the semester, we posted many excerpts of Alumni responses in our newsletter.
We are grateful to History Alumni for their generosity and insight. The classes represented ranged from the Class of 1947 to the Class of 2015. Many are excerpted below and in time, we will have the complete archive up.
1~How have the history skills of analysis and writing been useful in your career?
A~I graduated some time ago so mentioning a particular faculty member may be only so meaningful. But, later in my studies, I enrolled in a modern European history course taught by Edward W. Fox. The subject, while interesting, was less significant than Fox’s encouragement that class members read multiple books, not page by page to the end, but sufficiently to gain an understanding of the writer’s point of view, sources, and interpretation. The various books written on Bismarck over the years were a particularly illuminating example commending that approach. The comparison between a biography by Erich Eyck and one by A.J.P. Taylor still sticks in mind. Guided by that approach, I worked with more than 70 books during the course of one semester in that class alone. Horace “Tal” Day '59, Hawaii Ph.D. (Political Science, 1974); Univ. of Penn. J.D. (1985)
A~They have been essential. It’s no accident that so many executives are trained in history. The skills of analysis in causation, in understanding responses to problems, analyzing behavior and decision making….all were central to my education at Cornell and all were used throughout my career in education and management….and my skills as a writer, however good they may have been were in no small part due to the critical assessment of many writing assignments by the faculty at Cornell.
I am so very grateful to all my Cornell teachers: Walter LaFeber, my advisor, and L. Pearce Williams, Donald Kagan, David Brion Davis, Paul Gates, Clinton Rossiter, and Curtis Nettels. The standards they set were so high that I never felt unprepared when I went off to graduate school and the world of work. Thanks for giving me this chance to share these thoughts and good luck to all you seniors in all your endeavors. I hope your memories of Cornell will be as positive as mine are. With warm regards, Ralph Janis ’66, Director Emeritus Cornell’s Adult University
A~"I was lucky. I have been employed as a professor of history at 4-year universities for the whole of my career: Montana State University, University of Maine, and George Mason University. I suppose you could say that I have used the skills that I learned both as an undergraduate every day as I teach the next generation of young historians." ~Paula Petrick ‘69
A~"They have been invaluable. Without a doubt, my ability to cogently analyze and synthesize data and events helped me become a very successful Air Force Intelligence Officer, Consultant and CNN Military Analyst. Those skills were developed and honed in Cornell’s History program. In to-day’s supposedly knowledge-based economy, true knowledge and analytical abilities are in great demand…" ~Cedric Leighton ‘84
A~"I am the head of Finance for a medical device company and have been working in the Finance specialty of Finan-cial Planning and Analysis (FP&A) for 15 years. To enter the field I had to study the basics of Finance and Accounting after Cornell, but once I was working in FP&A I found that the critical thinking and writing skills honed during my time as a history major were a positive differentiator compared to my peers from a more traditional accounting background." ~Doug Mikawa-Mallery ‘96
A-"I utilize the skills of analysis and writing in my everyday life. I work in corporate immigration and spend each day synthesizing the work of outstanding researchers in their academic and industrial fields of study and writing letters of support for their applications for permanent residency in the U.S". ~Melissa Frank ‘14
2. Have you used your history skills and knowledge in a field other than history: creative arts; science; journalism, for example? If so, please describe how history has informed your work. One specific example would be very helpful.
A~After Cornell, I earned an MBA, and then joined a very large corporation, spending my first twelve years progressing through a variety of accounting and financial managerial positions. People were surprised when they learned my undergraduate degree was in History. I explained that History and Accounting were intellectually the same function. Both the Historian and Accountant strive to describe and explain events. The Historian does it with words and books; the Accountant does it with numbers and financial statements. The goals are the same: educate others about what happened. ~Richard Ekstrom, Class of 1966
A~I will give two examples. One is when I was interviewing for a corporate marketing job after receiving my MBA. With my undergrad history degree and non-profit work experience, I was at a disadvantage competing with those who had business, engineering or economics degrees undergrad, and who had consulting or investment banking work experience. However, I used my creative and critical thinking skills to emphasize how my history degree would be useful in a marketing role. I said that historians had the challenge of taking facts that may have been around for hundreds of years and analyzing and interpreting them to come up with new ideas and theories that had not been discovered by preceding generations of historians. I then said that these same skills could be used to look at facts and data that may have been only been around for a short time, but that had to be analyzed and leveraged to create new ideas before one’s competitors could do so. This seems to have been helpful in getting me into a corporate career despite the competition.
Second, as noted in response to the first question, the ability to organize thoughts and present coherent and persuasive arguments backed with facts/data is becoming something of a lost art, and yet is so critical to success in business. I have many times used my analytical and writing skills to construct presentations that have persuaded my superiors to agree to invest in projects and programs I have proposed. So much of success in business is persuading people to invest in your ideas, and the skills I learned as a history major at Cornell have been very helpful. ~Beth Horowitz Class: ’79
A~I write about education policy. Policy-makers in this field rarely examine evidence of what has or hasn't worked in the past. Understanding the history of education is helpful in analyzing (and debunking) some of the evidence-free policies imposed on our public schools by our political lead-ers and by powerful billionaires who influence them. I studied a lot of Chinese History at Cornell. In preparing a speech I will be giving at a conference regarding personalized learning (where students as young as elementary school are supposed to direct their own learning, design their own curricula, etc- ignoring the expertise of teachers), I keep thinking about the Cultural Revolution's rejection of anyone who was an expert, or well-educated…~Wendy Lecker ‘84
A~Yes, I started as a history major, studied journalism in grad school and now work as an editor at a national inspirational magazine. My history degree comes in handy on a daily basis. I often write and pitch historical pieces for the magazine and conduct in-depth interviews with experts. I recently wrote an article about a toy pig that survived the Titanic disaster. Instead of relying on what was already written about the subject, I threw myself into research. I contacted the National Maritime Museum in England, interviewed a curator, got access to the personal handwritten accounts of a Titanic survivor, read books on the subject, watched old interviews with survivors, found the court testimony of a survivor and interviewed a Titanic historian. It felt like I was back at Cornell. All those years I spent at Cornell researching, uncovering sources, digging for clues at the library and writing endless papers has given me a real edge in my work and has helped bring my stories to life. Although I’m a writer now, I’m still very much a history major at heart!~Diana Aydin, Class of 2005
A~Some key skills I learned from majoring in History include fact investigation, learning how to read carefully, writing persuasively, as well as providing adequate and correct citations to your writing. As a bank attorney, even though I do not write about anything historical, I often draft memos to upper management informing them about regulatory changes in the banking industry and what the bank has to do to comply with the laws. Before I issue my final prod- u ct, I h av e to r ea d through the legislative text myself, read secondary sources about how law firms and experts interpret the legislation then draft the memo, with proper citations, to advise the bank management about legislative changes that affect the bank. ~Eric Ng ‘09
A~Even if you secure a technical degree later, you will possess a range of knowledge and skills that others lack. Remember that, as you climb the ladder of most organizations, the people at the top are very well-read, well researched, and have a great appreciation for those who have a broad range of general knowledge at their fingertips. This is precisely what a history degree personifies. In large organizations, this skill-set will be recognized by the brightest people. Anyone can acquire technical knowledge, but not every-one earn a history degree from an Ivy League school. You will be trainable for professions that don't yet exist, because – as my mother said to me when entering Cornell -- you will learn how to learn. A history degree is therefore timeless and eternal. ~Randall Nixon '78
A~Software design.I worked for Airline Tariff Publishing Co, Wash, DC for 18 years and designed a product that enabled airline reservation systems to automate fare rule restrictions in their pricing. This led to a 2-year position implementing that product in a French airline reservations company. The most relevant next step was my being hired by Microsoft to implement that same product into a revolutionary internet site called Expedia.com.Utilizing a historical thought process, I was able to explain to a bunch of ‘rocket scientists’ how airline pricing had grown over 30+ years, and the WHY behind the design. Without the historical thinking, they would never have understood or accepted the relevance of many of the arcane details included in the design.~Mark Stepich, '75
3.What career advice might you have for history majors wishing to work in a public forum, for example, a museum or national park?
A~Look for opportunities to get experience in public speaking to an interested general audience. Historic house museums have a chronic need for docents. Find a location where you can volunteer. See what opportunities there are to use museum resources for a research project that will help the museum’s interpretation and lead to a publication as well, or more than one. Consider writing versions for both popular and academic audiences. ~Horace “Tal” Day Graduating Class:: 1959
A~As a performing artist, I have used history skills to accurately recreate and document historical music for live performances and recordings. By studying original docu-ments and music, I have been able to provide the modern listener with accurate, representative historical presentations. Through my work, I have been able to correct many misconceptions about how music would have sounded in 18th and 19th century America. ~Douglas Jimerson ‘73
A~Be creative in your search and willing to ask current employees who do things you find interesting how they got into the field. I volunteer with a historical service organiza-tion; I'm continuously amazed at how many museums, foun-dations, and libraries there are that I have only learned about through my volunteer service. I never knew until I began to work for the Department of Defense that every branch of the military - and in some cases, individual units - have historical preservation missions. If you limit yourself to the well-known or easy to find options, you may miss out on other career opportunities. If you can't find online internship opportunities, call or write to ask if an institution or organization you're interested in would consider doing one. Think about things ahead of time that you can do (Catalog a collec-tion? Inventory records? Transcribe documents? Docent tours?) to make it easier for them to say yes. Use volunteer or intern experiences to ask about paid opportunities, both in the organization and outside. ~ Suzann Gallagher ‘97
4. Students believe history is an important basis for understanding what is happening now in the world. People draw on history to understand the present. What problems might our generation help solve using our knowledge of history?
A- I wish this statement were more true! It is too often that we see painfully learned lessons of history swept aside by the threat du jour of politics. Immigration is one of those issues.
The political discourse regarding welcoming immigrants and refugees is so sadly characterized by hate and fear-mongering. Historically, immigration made America prosperous materially and beautifully diverse in culture. What could be more "American" than jeans? Levi Strauss, who created the first company to manufacture jeans, was actually a German immigrant who moved to New York City when he was 18. Similarly, Sergey Brin, who is a co-founder of Google, was an immigrant from the Soviet Union before he went on to study at Stanford and develop one of the most valuable companies in the world.
Meanwhile, episodes in our nation's history like Japanese internment are too often swept under the rug when chillingly similar proposals are espoused by politicians. As students of history, I think it is our duty to remember and articulate sobering reminders of the tragic outcomes of hateful polices. I hope we can carry forth our knowledge to advocate for a country of peace, prosperity, and toleration.~Kasey L. Ashford. Class of 2012
A~Yes, I think this happens all the time. Sometimes it’s for the betterment of society, and unfortunately, sometimes it’s a step backward. Even in a world where we have the tools to document almost everything that is happening in real-time in both words and video, history still remains up for interpretation. I’ll stay with the theme of my experiences at work rather than commenting on specific world event. A day does not go by where people take actions based on long-held beliefs or anecdotal information. They think something happened in the past and they take real actions in the present as a result. Often, to change those behaviors, it takes a tremen-dous amount of work and commitment. You have to dig into old records, analyze information and present a business case for why we might want to think about something differently. Without trying to be too grandiose, that’s essentially what the study of history is all about—you spend more time an energy than others studying events of the past, and eventual-ly, you see those events in a new light that changes how peo-ple think about them. ~Alexander Cwirko-Godycki ‘04
A~I think WW2 and the Vietnam War are extremely relevant today as international economic and military conflicts grow.NB – IMO, religious conflicts typically originate from economic stress. Eg, do we have enough water and arable land to support our group. If not, go take some.Mark Stepich, '75
Answer ~ Beth Horowitz Class: ’79
Climate change and the potential of renewable energy — not the science, but the matter of persuading policymakers to take action;
Income inequality: This challenge has occurred before in history at different points in time and in different cultures, and usually with very bad outcomes if not addressed;
The importance of educating girls and women: This is still an issue in many parts of the world and history proves that education for all creates economic growth and opportunity.
A~This one is difficult. As part of the generation that opposed the Vietnam War, fought for civil rights, and supported feminism, we tried to change the world. And I suppose, after a fashion we made some progress, but recent years suggest there is much more to be done. As Edward M. Kennedy said: “ The work begins anew. The hope rises again. The dream lives on.” A knowledge of history means that you are never surprised by demagogues and that you can differentiate bona fide arguments made from history from those that are built on error and misinterpretation. So, a problem for the next generation that would benefit from a knowledge of history, especially Middle Eastern and Central Asian history, would be peace. Working for peace and justice, however, need not be a national effort; it is a task that each person can contribute to on a daily basis.~~Paula Petrick ‘69
5.Have you lived to see new interpretations of history, can you provide an example?
A~There is a substantial current debate about the appropriate characteristics and limits of the form of government in the United States. This is not a new subject. It has been debated for hundreds of years and has consequences for the future. Yet the work so far done is anything but definitive. There is a lot of room for new contributions to a historical understanding of government in the United States, and the European underpinnings of it. ~Bruce Baird ‘70
A~Well I'm only two years older than the current seniors, so I have lived to see many of the new interpretations that they have. Some more recent interpretations that have been applicable in my work include, the discourse of slavery being intertwined to the foundation of USA's economy (which Professor Baptist has been a part of) and the changing understanding of the nation-state and borders as western constructs that so not apply equally everywhere. ~ Michael Perry, Class of 2014
updated May 2, 2018