In the first of this year’s Professionalization Spotlights, Alexander Clayton, the History Department’s public engagement and professionalization coordinator, connected with graduate student Elena Rosario over Zoom to discuss her publicly engaged scholarship and projects with Connecticut Humanities, Hartford Public Library, and the Mellon-Rackham Fellowship in Public Engagement and the Humanities.
Alexander Clayton: To begin, perhaps you could say a little bit about yourself. What year are you in the program? What do you research?
Elena Rosario: I’m a sixth-year PhD candidate in the History program, and my research focuses on twentieth-century Puerto Rican migration and settlement in Connecticut. I’m particularly interested in the post-World War II period up until the 1970s, which situates my work within the historiography of the long civil rights movement. I’m interested in the ways in which communities have talked about and archived their own histories and the ways in which historians can better understand the past through deep local history. How we can better create history with the people that were the history makers.
AC: Were there factors or interests that led you to pursue publicly engaged scholarship? And were there early projects that helped make you the public historian you are today?
ER: Like a lot of us that get PhDs, I loved reading as a kid. But the only thing I loved more than reading was sharing that reading with other people. So from a young age I always wanted to educate others and learn. I enjoyed hearing about my mother's experience migrating to Connecticut from Puerto Rico as a young girl and as a young Puerto Rican girl I began to ask questions about why I did not learn about people that looked like me in my classes and history textbooks. It made me think about the kind of American history we get throughout our education, and the kind of work I wanted to do to fix that. I was only able to get here through grassroots work and public history. I did programs like AVID, a college prep program for underrepresented and first-generation students. Also programs like Upward Bound. As a first-generation college student, those opportunities enhanced and reinforced what I wanted to do, which was to make stories and histories more accessible. So for me, history has always been public. When you are engaging the public in teaching and making education more accessible, that is scholarship, it doesn’t have to be a seminar paper to be academic.
AC: You have been involved in such an amazing variety of projects, producing lesson plans and public lectures, working in community archive projects, and getting a range of fellowships here at Michigan. Perhaps you can tell the readers a little bit about some of the projects you have found most rewarding?
ER: In 2020, I did the Rackham-Mellon Public Engagement and the Humanities Fellowship. The program brought in alumni from different organizations, and one day this guy comes in and he’s from Connecticut. His name is Dr. Frank Mitchell, he was a Michigan alum from American Culture and he did everything I wanted to do! He had done public programming with a historical society and was executive director of the Amistad Center for Art and Culture. In 2019, the Connecticut State Legislature passed a law that required Black and Latino Studies to be taught in schools. Through Frank and other people I had met through my experiences, I was able to join those conversations. So one opportunity led to another. From articulating what I wanted to do, I found people that also want to do similar sorts of work. These connections also led me to Connecticut Humanities and the digital lesson plans I produced this year. They had recently received a grant to write material for the new curriculum on their digital platform TeachIt, and asked me to develop materials on Puerto Rican history. What’s amazing is that my cousin’s daughter is taking the first iteration of that class and curriculum this academic year. She is telling her friends, showing them my lesson plans. So, to have 15-year-olds telling you that you are doing good work, you know you’ve made it!
AC: Your public engagement work has taken place both in Hartford, Connecticut, and at U-M in Ann Arbor. Do you have any takeaways about working with both the university and externally funded projects? How do the skills, demands, and final products vary?
ER: The biggest difference is the deliverables and the tangible outcomes. In a university setting, oftentimes you have a lot of freedom to be more abstract. You have time to think, have ideas, and the opportunity to really sit down and create a research project.
Outside of the academy, the opposite occurs where tangible results have to come much faster. When you are doing public engagement in a community, if the community needs the resource, you have to let it go. That’s something that was scary when I was producing these lesson plans for Connecticut Humanities, I didn’t want to put my research out there. But it’s important to remember that I’m doing public history, public history is doing history for the public and what they need. The public needed those lesson plans, so I just had to do it. It’s given me the confidence to know that I already have the skills to produce this type of work, with little time to keep thinking and rethinking, you just have to make decisions, and adapt to the spontaneity.
AC: How do you think your public history work has shaped your research interests? How have the methods, questions, and findings of your public-facing work influenced your dissertation?
ER: For me, public history is not a separate part of my work, it’s just my work! So as I’m writing a chapter or writing a lesson plan, it's all reinforcing my scholarship. For example, with my dissertation, after producing curriculums and being involved in these public projects, I’m increasingly thinking that my next chapter might end up being more reflective on educational studies, because that’s the kind of work that this community needs. So the questions of public history and my dissertation work together and really can’t be separated.
AC: Do you have any advice for graduate students looking for opportunities in public history? How did you go about making connections and pursuing these experiences?
ER: The number one thing I would say is read your emails. Knowing what’s out there is really important, and checking your email is an easy way to find and seek out those opportunities. It helps you know all the opportunities that Rackham has to offer. Go to the funding site and review all those opportunities that they have. Apply to everything that applies to you and take all the opportunities you can. Go to events offered by organizations like CRLT and the Ginsburg Center, and use them as an opportunity to meet new people and hear about the projects people are doing. Being a first generation college and graduate student, I didn’t always have those networks, so it's important to make them. Finding mentors is important. Find someone that knows someone you want to know, and people that can help support you as you seek out opportunities. The opportunities build from there. All these experiences have led me to this point, and each opportunity has led me to be a better communicator with people at different levels. When you are in grad school you can get caught up in coursework, but little opportunities here and there can make a huge difference. Like going to an event or listening to people in other departments, the more people you meet, the more you are going to be exposed to new projects and ideas.
AC: And, finally, what is to come? How has your work in public history shaped your broader career goals and the skills that you will take onto the job market?
ER: These projects have shown me how education can occur outside the classroom. I could see myself working for a Historical Society, working for non-profit organizations focused on educational access, and working within a university setting. There is always community work to be done and ways to make history more accessible. There are multiple settings from which you can do that scholarship.
See more of Elena’s work here:
Connecticut Humanities Lesson Plans:
- The First Puerto Rican Day Parade in Hartford
- Post-World War II Puerto Rican Farm Labor Migration to Connecticut
- Bilingual Education for Spanish Speakers in 1970s Hartford
Work with Trinity College and Hartford Public Library:
- March 2021 Public Lecture on Puerto Ricans in Hartford
- Community Partner and Historical Consultant for "Puerto Rican Community Archiving Project," funded by the Public Humanities Collaborative at Trinity College in conjunction with the Hartford Public Library