Celebrating Diversity in the University Archives

Eden Orelove and Tasha Dorsey were two of four students selected for the inaugural cohort of University Archives Diversity Research Fellows

May 27, 2014
By Brittney Dunkins

While the history of the George Washington University began with a group of 11 students in 1821, it has expanded over nearly 200-years to build a legacy that includes soldiers on the frontlines of the two world wars, staff who have served for more than 40 years, women who have fought for rights alongside suffragettes and international students from around the globe who made GW their home.

The inaugural cohort of University Archives Diversity Research Fellows—students Eden Orelove, Isabel Garcia, Tasha Dorsey and Dominic Amaral—spent an academic year combing through the University Archives at the GW Libraries to dig up these unsung stories, examining the lives of the nonacademic staff, women, international students and veterans who have contributed to GW’s history.

“We developed this program to bring the campus community closer to the history of the university,” former University Archivist Bergis Jules said. “It gives students the opportunity to preserve the fascinating legacy of GW.”

The fellows were selected by a committee of faculty and staff from the Special Collections Research Center at the beginning of the academic year and awarded a stipend. Funding for the program was supplied through an Innovations in Diversity and Inclusion grant from the Office of Diversity and Inclusion

Mr. Jules and Public Services and Outreach Librarian for Special Collections Jennifer Kinniff managed the program and offered guidance to the students about navigating the GW Libraries’ collections and finding sources beyond the archives.

“This program is a great opportunity for students, especially undergraduates, to do this kind of research and be really well supported by faculty and staff,” Ms. Kinniff said.

For Ms. Dorsey, a graduate student in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences' clinical psychology program, friendships she formed with the cafeteria staff an undergraduate at the United States Naval Academy inspired her interest in researching the lives of staff members at GW.

“My grandmother was a custodian at Bolling Air Force Base, so I am mindful of those types of positions,” Ms. Dorsey said. “I think class is often overlooked in diversity because it can be such a sensitive topic, but this research project made me very grateful to be in a position to earn an education at GW.”

“It also made me think of how things have progressed from my grandmother's time to my own,” she added. “I would love to continue this research at GW and on a bigger scale at other universities.”

A veteran, Mr. Amaral, B.A. ’14, applied for the program at the urging of Michael Ruybal, associate director of the Office of Military and Veteran Student Services.

Mr. Amaral scoured 50 years of veterans’ history at GW, beginning with 1900. He was fascinated by the university’s flexibility at the onset of World War I, when GW developed courses focused on firearms, camouflage and ship hull engineering to better educate the changing student body. By the end of WWI there were 1,200 veterans out of 3,200 students, he said.

“Not much has changed since 1944, and this project stands as an example to other veterans to remind us that we are not the first or the last to serve,” he added. "I enjoyed reading and compiling this history because it’s very similar to modern day,” he said.

Ms. Orelove conducted an in-depth study of women at GW and found that the Columbian Women organization has been a champion for female students for 125 years.

She said that researching the place of women at GW in history was an important experience, from discovering the stories of alumni pioneers such as Antarctic explorer Jackie Ronne and aviator Jacqueline Cochran to learning about the Columbian Women’s contribution to purchase a gram of radium for scientist Marie Curie.

“You have students who served their nation in various places and then after years of conflict returned to college covered in tattoos and several years older than the rest of the student population.” -Veteran and University Archives Diversity Research Fellow Dominic Amaral, B.A. ’14

“As a female student at GW, I became aware that my education is possible in part because of the efforts of women who came before me,” Ms. Orelove said. “These women, including members of Columbian Women, fought for women’s rights, making it possible for females to pursue higher education.”

The research project was also personal for rising senior and Isabel Maria Garcia, a native of Ecuador, who studied the emergence of international students at GW.

She said that the development of the English as a Foreign Language program, founded in the 1970s to serve international students, was a turning point for the international community on campus. By the mid-1970s there were 1,229 foreign students from 101 countries attending GW.

“Forty years ago, international students at GW were not able to have the experiences we do now,” Ms. Garcia said. “It is thanks to them and the professors who worked with them all these years, that we are here.”

“My project is a tribute to everyone who, one step at a time, helped the GW international community become what it is now: our home for four years.” - University Archives Diversity Research Fellow Isabel Garcia

The fellows each wrote a research paper in consultation with a faculty adviser and presented their findings at the end of the academic year. Mr. Jules said that the students’ projects will be a valuable resource for future researchers.

“The goal was not to just give the students access to archives for this research project but also to allow them to create content that will be a part of the university archives,” Ms. Kinniff said. “Their research preserves the university’s history for future researchers and shares valuable stories that will help the entire campus community better understand diversity at GW.”

Next year’s program is in the planning stages. Updates on the application process will be posted online.

“There are so many topics that are ripe for discovery in the archives,” Mr. Jules said. “LGBT activism has a long history here. African American history, especially from the 1960s, is also large part of the archives,” he said. “The history of GW is so rich this program could go on forever.”

Ms. Kinniff added, “This project validated our belief that there are stories in the archives waiting to be discovered, and students can help us find and share them with GW.”