My love for history started when I was too young to fully grasp the concept of history let alone its weight as an academic discipline. It started with my Grandfather. In Boston, where my family is from, there is a small beach town named Hummarock where my Grandmother and Grandfather had a house. My grandparents are and were snowbirds, a colloquial term used for those who migrate from their colder, permanent residences to Florida for the winter. Because of this, I primarily saw my grandparents during the New England summer months.
After a dinner of meatballs and spaghetti (I am very culturally and ethnically Italian), followed by some kind of pistachio dessert (Grandpa loved pistachio anything) Grandpa would invite me to the upstairs foyer where we would sit and examine his military “artifacts.” These artifacts consisted of ephemeral medical records, official documents, letters from Grandma, and his military tags. In the soft evening light, a combination of the sun having just set and a lamp having just been turned on, he would carefully pull up each relic and tell me its story. Why it existed and how it related to him. His methodical presentations of the minutiae fascinated me. Grandpa was a wonderful storyteller and through his stories history became alive. At a young age I began to grasp that lives had existed long before me and that their experiences made for the stuff of gripping, heartbreaking, joyful narratives.
When I was 11 years old my Grandfather, one of my biggest supporters, and strongest mentors, passed due to cancer. At 11 I felt his loss immediately, but at 21 his loss reverberates profoundly throughout me. Only, it is not a sad, deadening feeling. Rather, his loss is a reminder of a friend, a guardian, a kindred spirit, and a person to make proud. When I reflect on my decision to major in History at UW Madison, I can’t help but smile at how much Grandpa was a part of that decision, whether I realized it at the time or not. His countless anecdotes about military life or his sometimes-meandering breakdowns of the Cold War instilled in me a respect for the past and its lessons. This one is for you, Grandpa.
As I begin to disembark from University and its challenges, and prepare myself for the “real world,” I am so grateful that I studied History, not only as a tribute to the ones whom I loved and who loved me, but because of the innumerable gifts the discipline has given me. Studying history has fortified my ability to make logical, reasoned arguments and conclusions when presented with new information. One result of being exposed to countless arguments of others and having written my own is that I am able to think critically quickly and take away an important insight (or so I like to think so). As our world continues to globalize and generate new information at rapid speed, the ability to synthesis quickly vast amounts of information for its relevant value will be a crucial skill. History has taught me that humans are capricious and that humanity, as a large operating mechanism of social, economic, and political force, is not to be trusted. I don’t say that with any bitterness. Instead, history reminds me to stay critical in my analysis of humanity and its agendas. Finally, studying history has taught me to never be afraid of change. That change is the only constant we have, and if I equip myself with the necessary skills to navigate change (whatever change looks like in my particular moment on earth), I will be fine. Yes, that means I have had to study statistics (data is everything with this crowd) and audit a marketing class to stay hip to the game. I have found that marrying the intellectual framework which history has provided me with to those more technical skills to be a worthwhile endeavor. I don’t think like everyone else in a business or statistics class room – I can do what they do and I do it with a twist, which proves to be beneficial, and hopefully in my future career, groundbreaking.
So, how do I feel about graduating with a history degree from UW Madison? Pretty damn good, frankly. And to all my other recent, or past, history graduates, I hope you feel the same.
Alissa Valeri is a senior majoring in History. She has spent her past four years learning from experts in the fields of Caribbean, Gender and Women, and Puritanical New England history. After graduation she hopes to work in the private sector in communications, marketing, or business analysis. Later in her career, she hopes to work for a non profit or as a public school teacher.