From Washington to London, from Smithsonian museums to national parks, a cadre of top Washington College students will be fanning out this summer to work at leading cultural and historical institutions. Thanks to grants awarded by the College’s C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience, nine students will have paid, full-time jobs doing everything from unearthing the identities of 18th-century slaves, to researching a forthcoming exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery or helping plan the celebration of the 225th anniversary of the signing of the Constitution.
The students’ upcoming experiences are made possible by the Starr Center’s Comegys Bight Fellows Program, established in 2003 by Drs. Thomas and Virginia Collier of Chestertown. This year, thanks to partnerships with major institutions and the additional support of new donors, the Center has been able to launch a new, greatly expanded version of the program.
“I’m thrilled that we can help some of Washington College’s top students gain the kinds of positions that few undergraduates – or even graduate students – at other colleges could hope to get,” said Adam Goodheart, Hodson Trust-Griswold Director of the Starr Center. “It’s exciting to think that for some of these students, including graduating seniors, the fellowships may even be launch pads into future careers.
The Starr Center’s staff networked with directors and curators at distinguished institutions to secure potential positions for qualified students from Washington College. They also worked with donors to obtain funding. Then they paired individual applicants with specific positions based on each student’s background and interests. The Comegys Bight funds will be paid directly to the students as hourly wages for their summer work.
James Bigwood ’12, a double-major in Physics and History and a longtime participant in the Starr Center’s Poplar Grove Project, will work with David Ward, chief historian of the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. He will help research two upcoming exhibitions – one on Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee, the other titled “In the Sweat of their Faces: Portraits of American Working People.”
“I’m excited about the work, and the location is unbelievable,” Bigwood says. “The National Portrait Gallery is in the old Patent Office Building and there is so much history there. It’s cool to think that Walt Whitman was walking through those very halls.”
“The Smithsonian is all about partnerships, both intellectual and institutional, and we at the National Portrait Gallery are especially happy to work with Washington College to provide a place for their students to work and learn,” says chief historian Ward. “Internships are mutually enriching: while the undergraduates gain – we hope! – valuable experience at a museum, the museum in turn benefits from their work and enthusiasm. Both Washington College and the Smithsonian are conscious of our role as teachers of the next generation.”
A history major with a special interest in the Civil War, Christopher Brown ’12 has always wanted to work for the National Park Service. This summer he will be at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park developing and presenting a tour of the great landmark. “I’ll be going to grad school next fall in history with a focus on public history,” says Brown. “So I can’t wait to get my hands dirty and get some on-the-job training.”
History majors Ellen Dalina ’13 and Michael Kuethe ’13 will be doing research at the Maryland Historical Society, most likely on the War of 1812, as Maryland marks the anniversary of a conflict that left a lasting mark on the state. Both Dalina and Kuethe are also recipients of the Starr Center’s Quill & Compass Scholarships.
Megan McCurdy ’14, a political science major, will work at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia on special events, including the 225th anniversary of the signing of the Constitution. “There will be a summer-long celebration leading up to one big party on Constitution Day,” she says. “I’m honored to be part of such an historic occasion.
Daniel Primiani ’13, a history major, will work at the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond on an ambitious project launched last year called “Unknown No Longer: A Database of Virginia Slave Names.” He will help scholars comb through some eight million documents dating from the 17th through 19th centuries – including wills, memoirs, letters and family Bibles – seeking the names of slaves and their owners for an extraordinary searchable database posted at vahistorical.org.
Paul Levengood, the President and CEO of the Virginia Historical Society, welcomes this new partnership with Washington College. “It’s especially appropriate that the namesake college of the preeminent Virginian is linked with the premier historical institution in Virginia,” he notes. “Dan Primiani’s research assistance will be invaluable as we uncover long-hidden connections between African Americans and their enslaved forebears.”
An anthropology major who wants to pursue a career in museums, Sarah Hartge ’12 will be at the Maryland State Archives documenting the lives of free and enslaved African Americans who lived in Maryland’s colonial London Town settlement between 1690 and 1760. “It will be a fabulous way to gain valuable research experience and help me figure out if this is what I want to do with my life,” she says.
Katherine Thornton ’13, a student associate at the Starr Center who is majoring in American Studies and Environmental Studies, will also work at the Maryland State Archives, helping historian Christopher Haley (nephew of Roots author Alex Haley) document slavery and resistance on Maryland’s Upper Eastern Shore.
And Chuck Weisenberger ’12 will work at the Maryland State Archives further pursuing research he began at the Maryland Historical Society last summer, studying African-American Marylanders in the War of 1812. As part of his Comegys Bight Fellowship, he will travel to London with Maryland State Archivist Edward Papenfuse to delve into military records in the British National Archives at Kew, just outside London, seeking evidence of escaped slaves who joined the invading forces. Weisenberger, a Quill & Compass Scholar at the Starr Center, also wrote his History thesis on black Marylanders in the War of 1812.
Along with the continuing generous support of the Collier family, this year’s Comegys Bight fellowships were made possible by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the U.S. Department of Education, and the Helen Clay Frick Foundation, as well as gifts from several individual donors.
“We’re tremendously grateful to these benefactors,” says Goodheart, “as well as to faculty members in various departments who encouraged their top students to apply. I just wish we could have offered fellowships to more of the two dozen applicants, but I hope that in future years, the Comegys Bight program may continue to grow.”