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History Alumni Spotlight: Kelsey Utne '12

From Salem State's history department to a PhD candidate of history at Cornell University

What was your hometown, major, minor(s), concentration and year of graduation?

Originally Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, then Marblehead, Massachusetts, then Beverly, MA. It's now Ithaca, New York.

I graduated from Salem State University in 2012 with majors in history, political science, and economics, and with minors in Asian studies and foreign languages.

What is your current title and role?  What are you responsible for day-to-day?

I’m currently a PhD candidate in the history department at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. My precise responsibilities vary from term to term, but they are always aligned with developing my professional skills as a researcher and educator. Over the last year, I conducted archival research in India and the United Kingdom for my dissertation on the politics of commemoration and public history in late colonial India. This year my primary duty is to organize and process my materials and begin writing my dissertation.

The challenge of producing genuinely new scholarship is both daunting and exhilarating. Next year I’ll go on the job market and begin applying for postdocs and tenure track positions. This fall will be my third term working as a prison educator for the Cornell Prison Education Program. As a CPEP instructor, I teach 6-17 incarcerated students a term at one of three New York State correctional facilities.

In the past, I designed and taught Western Civilization II and Introduction to College Writing. At the moment I am also starting a new position at Cornell’s Olin Library as one of two digital humanities interns. For a few hours each week, I’ll hold consulting sessions with Cornell graduate students on programming with Python and creating SQL databases to manage their research.

Finally, for this academic year, my stipend from the history department is tied to my work as a teaching assistant in the fall semester and as an instructor in the spring. As a teaching assistant for HIST 1700: History of Exploration I will grade undergraduate student work and lead two discussion sections a week. Then in the spring semester as an FWS instructor, I’ll teach a First-year Writing Seminar. I was thrilled when Cornell approved my proposal to create a class on the history of the dead. Rather than having a geographic focus (like South Asia), this will be a thematic class. I’ve been developing the course content and syllabus all summer and cannot wait until spring to get started!

What encouraged you to pursue this career?

The SSU history department was my home base on campus during my undergraduate studies. Almost every history professor I had a class with became some sort of mentor, as well as a few whose classes I never took! They encouraged me to apply to PhD programs—something I’d never even dreamt of. Their investment in student learning and success changed my life. I aim to become a college educator so that I can pass it on.

What skills did you learn as a history major and how did your time at Salem State prepare you for life after graduation?

I benefitted significantly from the history department’s strong emphasis on secondary education and public history. While most of my classes were not technically within either subfield, I was immersed in conversations about how the public interfaces with, receives and contributes to historical understanding. This environment trained me to see subtle connections between events and the stories people told about themselves at that time.

Was there a particular faculty member or class that had a lasting impact on you?

I hardly knew anything about the history of India and Pakistan when, on a whim, I took an independent study with Michele Louro. Her enthusiasm for the topic completely drew me in. I proceeded to take at least 4 more classes with her. She’s the one who convinced me to apply for a Fulbright grant to go to India, which in turn allowed me to live in New Delhi for 8 months the year after I graduated from Salem State.

What is the most exciting professional opportunity you have had since graduating?

This is a tie between 1.) studying Urdu in Pakistan for 4 months and 2.) teaching incarcerated students. They are at once immensely different experiences. Both require a willingness to step completely outside of your comfort zone, to roll with the unpredictable, and to show up every day even when things get hard. Both are rewarding beyond words.

What is it like for a New Englander to live in upstate New York?

Life in New England prepared me pretty well for life in Ithaca. My only real complaint is how far we are from the ocean. Cayuga Lake is lovely, but it isn’t the same. Oh, also I own snow tires now. All season tires always served my family and I perfectly fine in New England. We’re at the very edge of the lake effect snow that slams Buffalo, but you don’t need to stray far from Ithaca to encounter extreme conditions.

What advice would you provide to an incoming history major at Salem State?

First, take history classes on topics and places you don’t know much about. You might discover a sliver of world history that becomes a lifelong passion (Example A: Me!). And even if you only take one class on an area, you’ll have a better foundation when it comes up in the news or peripherally in another class regardless of discipline.

Second, get to know your professors. Go to office hours, ask them about their own research projects, and tell them what drives you. Salem State's small class sizes mean that your professors learn your name and grade your work rather than a teaching assistant. You won’t be one out of 130 students in a lecture, you’ll be one out of 25 or 20 or 15. Take advantage of that.

Learn more about the history department at Salem State University.

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