|Cali Pitchel working in Greenwich, NJ, Summer 2010|
Its been almost a decade since Cali Pitchel walked into my course on the history of the American Revolution. After a few false starts, today she is putting her history major to use every day.
Here is a taste of a piece she wrote at her blog:
I entered college as an “Undecided” freshman. Admissions assigned a well meaning but under-qualified Residence Director as my guidance counselor. Under her guidance direction I decided to take twelve credit hours my first semester — a hapless decision that would come back to haunt me during the first of a few eighteen credit hour semesters.
During the second semester of my sophomore year, I found myself sitting in the front row of “History of the American Revolution,” a small and rigorous upper-level history course. It was in this lecture hall where I would fall in love with the study of history and meet the faculty member who would have the most profound impact on my intellectual growth. Enthralled and stimulated in ways I hadn’t been during the first two years of college (and a full academic year behind on the Social Studies Certification), I declared myself a History major.
While my roommates studied for their state boards and MCATs, I took research trips to Greenwich, New Jersey and pored over Revolution-era documents at the Presbyterian Historical Society in Philadelphia.
As we neared graduation I got nervous. My friends headed onto medical school, Big Five accounting firms, and full-time positions as RNs. When I chose history, I didn’t choose a career. Next to their narrow, yet practical paths, mine looked roomy and indulgent. But at the same time my choices seemed limited. I had dropped the Social Studies Certificate, so I couldn’t get a job as a teacher. Did I want to do research? Become an archivist? None of the “traditional” paths appealed.
To buy myself time — two years to be precise — I went back to school for American Studies. I wrote about post-war America, industrial design, and what Rachael Ray’s success can teach us about nostalgia. It was fun. But again, seemingly indulgent.
Fast forward to summer of 2012. I’m wrapping up my second year of coursework in a PhD History program. The PhD felt like the natural choice after the MA. But I was burned out, unsettled, and agitated. I decided to take a leave from the program. Just one semester. That’s all I needed — a respite from the intensity of the program, and more importantly time to evaluate what I really wanted to do.
Teach? Research? Back to the archives? I was yet to imagine a professional life outside academia. I had bought into the narrative that the most acceptable place for a history major (or any other humanities student for that matter) was the classroom, the library, or the archives.
But I had sharpened very important skills as a history student, ones that applied outside the classroom. I could read. I could research. I could write. I could tell stories — stories marked by empathy and stories that accounted for context. In essence, I had the most practical education possible: I could listen to, interpret, and understand other people. And these weren’t just any people, they were people from the past. They didn’t look like me, think like me, or act like me — but my discipline required that I learn to understand them.
The Dictionary defines empathy as “the psychological identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.” Studying the past was essentially a proving ground for how to relate to everyone around me, not just historical actors. From the back-of-house in a restaurant to the boardroom or corner office, empathy and an ability to communicate clearly are requirements for any job.
John Fea, Professor of American History at Messiah College, has a lot to say about historical empathy and the employability of history grads. (He’s even written a book about it.)
While perusing his blog, I came across a QZ.com article from 2014 that demonstrates the importance of “intellectual humility” (i.e., empathy) in Google’s hiring practices:
It took me five years (and a few detours) after I graduated from college to learn how to articulate the value of my humanities education. My degree didn’t read “Marketing,” so I lacked the confidence necessary to apply for jobs that I truly found interesting. Instead I continued down the obvious raod that was indeed productive, but not necessary to get me onto my current career path.
Today I’m the Director of Marketing at a digital analytics consultancy in Seattle, Washington. If you asked me in 2007, while I donned my cap and graduation gown, where I’d be in five to ten years, I would have told you a classroom somewhere. I hadn’t left any room for possibility. I hadn’t begun to imagine how well-suited I was not only for a job outside of academia, but a job in marketing and advertising that demands you understand your audience, their behavior, and their wants and needs. My current role requires all the things I learned while I studied history — especially empathy.
I’ll end on this: If you studied history and you can’t seem to find the words to express your value in the workplace, email me. I want to help. If you’re an employer, I urge you to consider “nontraditional” applicants, those without the typical Communications, Marketing, or Business degrees. Your workplace will be better for it.