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Professor Brett Whalen, Director of Undergraduate Studies
On one hand, it was business as usual in the History department undergraduate program, teaching classes, carrying out research, and recognizing the excellence of our History majors. Special congratulations go to Kimathi Muiruri, awarded the Frank Ryan prize for the best senior honors thesis, “Their City, Our Terms: The Livelihood and Political Strategies of African Migrant Labourers in Durban, KwaZulu-Natal c. 1874-1906.” In this study, Muiruri explores strategies of self-expression and group organization amongst younger African laborers vis-a-vis both their own networks and the structures of British rule. The prize committee observed that ‘his writing is beautiful, his use of primary sources is smart and compelling, and he navigated a crowded historiography to offer something new and important.’

Independently from the Frank Ryan Prize, Kimathi Muiruri was also awarded the History department’s Cazel Prize, part of the Chancellor’s prize ceremonies. The Cazel prize recognizes an outstanding graduating senior who has excelled in the study of history, contributed to the life of the History department, and shown a profound commitment to the values of the historical discipline on and off campus. For just one example of Kimathi’s activities beyond the classroom, see his short commentary in the Wall Street Journal that made a historically based, cogently written argument for reparations to African Americans.

The department was equally pleased to award this year’s Joshua Meador prize for the best 398 “capstone” seminar essay. The winner was Sean Nguyen for his essay “A Forgotten Legacy: The Origins of Asian American Student Activism at the University of North Carolina,” written under the supervision of Professor William Sturkey. In this timely piece of historical research, Sean explores the attempt of Asian American UNC students to start an Asian Center on campus in the 1990s, demonstrating how a growing minority population at a Southern university fought for more inclusive cultural programs. (Not coincidently, UNC opened the doors to its new Asian American Center this year.)

History also welcomed a new cohort of inductees into Phi Alpha Theta: Allison Holbrooks, Hunter Hetfeld, Caroline Henderson, Samuel Timmons, Julianne Gates, Diego Barrientos, Grace Taylor, Taylor Williams, John Reynolds, Colton Wood, Scott Grant, Katherine Leonard, Sean Thomas, Lauren Taylor, Olivia Bornkessel, Adam Tatum, Justin Evangelisto, Henry Johnson, Ashley Masi, and Barry Klug. Our congratulations go to them all.

On the other hand, faculty and students continued to adjust and innovate as they faced the ongoing demands of remote teaching. For one stellar example of how faculty and students adapted to remote teaching, consider Professor Katie Turk’s research-intensive honors class, Climbing the Hill, which explored the history of women, sex, and gender right here on campus. The class originally planned to present its research outcomes in the form of a physical exhibition in the Wilson Library. COVID-19 disrupted those plans. Undeterred, Professor Turk and her students, with the help of the Special Collections staff and Digital History Lab, transformed their exhibition into a digital space:

The class also prepared a digital map giving a virtual tour of campus sites related to women’s history and created a series of podcasts related to their research findings.

Professor Turk and her students offer just one especially impressive example of how the undergraduate program in History has not just survived the coronavirus pandemic but thrived under its challenging circumstances. Nevertheless, faculty and students agree: there is no replacing face-to-face contact in the classroom. Here’s to hoping that 2021-22 finds us all back in the classroom, safe, healthy, and ready to pursue our historical studies.

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