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From the News column of the April 2004 Perspectives

History PhD Students Receive Woodrow Wilson Practicum Grants

David Darlington, April 2004

Two history PhD students at the University of Pennsylvania, Sejal Patel and Sarah Klimenko Riedl, are among the 10 winners of the latest round of Practicum Grants awarded by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation. 

The foundation’s Practicum Grants, which have a value of up to $2,000, are given to PhD students in the humanities so that they may put their academic knowledge to good use in the public arena, engaging their scholarship in a context outside of the typical career trajectories of college teaching and research. The grants are part of the Wilson Foundation’s Humanities at Work initiative, which seeks to give the humanities a broader, more central role in society. According to the Wilson Foundation, the Practicum Grants, which were launched in 1999, are meant to address three challenges: “to expand the career horizons of doctoral students in the humanities; to bring the insight of the humanities to all aspects of American life; and to bring the life of the larger community into the academy.”

Practicum Grant winners are expected to use their funds toward internship projects with nonacademic organizations. Applicants are required to submit a personal statement about their views on public scholarship, including a detailed plan of action developed in conjunction with a representative from the organization where they will be interning. At the conclusion of the project, winners are also required to write a brief article describing their experience and assessing the impact of their project on the community and on their professional development.

Sejal Patel, a student in the university’s Department of the History and Sociology of Science, plans to start working on her project in June of 2004. She will travel to Amsterdam to work with the Innovia Foundation, a Dutch firm that mediates between the personal concerns of medical patients and the theoretical concerns of researchers. She believes that qualitative analysis (like a patient’s physical and social environment) should be integrated into mainstream clinical research practices. Patel reports that her first assignment will be to network with other sympathetic academics and epidemiologists with the goal of putting together a formal conference in early 2005. Patel estimates that, at least initially, she will be writing grant proposals and soliciting possible presenters for the conference. Later, a virtual forum will be launched, where medical researchers, patient rights advocates, and medical ethicists can collaborate.

Sarah Klimenko Riedl, a doctoral student in the Department of History, has already begun working on her project, she told Perspectives in a recent conversation. Riedl is working for the Philadelphia-based National Constitution Center on the exhibit, “The Story of We the People,” which looks at American history through the lens of the Constitution. Riedl explained that while “The Story of We the People” is a permanent exhibit, the artifacts displayed—which include a diary of George Washington from his presidential years and a copy of the Constitution sent to Franklin Roosevelt by an irate citizen (admonishing the president to “read this!”)—are actually on temporary loan from other collections. Riedl explained that her project is to locate and identify suitable replacement artifacts and write interpretive panels for them. Through her work, she plans to generate a list of artifacts that will periodically replenish the items on display, allowing the “We the People” exhibit to remain a high-quality attraction for the National Constitution Center.

Riedl said that her project was inspired by her concern for “citizenship education,” and she feels that historians should play an important role in the public sphere. For the past couple of years, she has led walking tours of Philadelphia’s historic neighborhoods, but added that she wanted to gain familiarity with the museum angle of public history. She expects that her project, which was developed together with the staff of the National Constitution Center, will take about six months to complete. Riedl said she would recommend the Practicum Grant experience to other historians because of the useful experience she is gaining in locating and working with primary sources, and added that the financial support of the Wilson Foundation is “generous and helpful.”

The Wilson Foundation currently awards Practicum Grants twice a year (in spring and fall), and 20 history PhD students have received the grants from the program’s inception. More information about the Practicum Grants can be found on their web site at http://www.woodrow.org/phd/Practicum/practicum_grants_faq.html.

—David Darlington is associate editor of Perspectives.