Publication Date

September 1, 2021

Perspectives Section

Perspectives Daily

When I first heard about the 2020 AHA annual meeting, I thought that the hassle of planning and paying for the trip would not be worth the value of attending as an undergraduate student member. But a quick scan of the program confirmed that there was plenty to interest me, and I decided to register. That decision, aided by generous financial support from my university, led me to one of the most satisfying weekends, in both personal and professional terms, that I have ever had. I can now confirm that attending as an undergraduate is worth it, and fellow students considering pursuing an advanced degree in history, looking to fully leverage their history degree, or simply wanting to further explore their passion for history should consider attending. Although intimidating at times, the annual meeting proved incredibly rewarding to me.

2019 AHA president John R. McNeill greets undergraduate attendees at the 2020 annual meeting.

2019 AHA president John R. McNeill greets undergraduate attendees at the 2020 annual meeting. Marc Monaghan.

I benefited greatly from the resources related to career development and exploration. There were various sessions related to marketing oneself as a history major, understanding the academic job market, and successfully transitioning into graduate education. Two in particular, Transitions to Graduate School and Destigmatizing Career Diversity, gave me fresh insights into my career path after graduation. Both sessions emphasized pursuing career diversity, prioritizing mental health during grad school, and the variety of resources available for aspiring (and also established) historians. It has been my intention to attend graduate school in history, and though that hasn’t changed in the long term, this experience made me question whether entering graduate school immediately after undergrad was the best decision for me. I gained new perspectives on different pathways to graduate school and on the realities of life as a graduate student. These sessions provided critical advice that would have been hard to find otherwise.

Besides these formal options for professional development, the AHA meeting presented many opportunities for unstructured conversations with professionals working in the field—including several professors that I was excited to meet. It’s never too early to start practicing professional skills or to expand your personal network, and the annual meeting was a good place to practice. I was initially intimidated by these interactions, but I made the conscious choice to push myself out of my comfort zone. This effort was rewarded with valuable insights, contacts, and conversations. One of the most helpful encounters happened at random. While chatting with one professor at the undergraduate reception, I learned that she is an expert in the field in which I wrote my senior thesis. From that brief interaction came numerous leads, book recommendations, and new questions to consider. My project was far better after making that connection and the resources provided to me were invaluable.

I gained new perspectives on different pathways to graduate school and on the realities of life as a graduate student.

Beyond networking with established scholars, there were also many opportunities to meet other students. At both receptions and workshops, I connected with students who shared my interests in early American history. One fellow student I met at the résumé workshop had even read a paper that I published in the Journal of the American Revolution. Being recognized in that fashion was a surreal moment, and just one highlight of the conference.

Subject-specific sessions are an obvious benefit of the annual meeting. As a student interested in early American political history and public history, there were often multiple sessions during each time slot that I wanted to attend. This was a different kind of learning than what I have experienced in the classroom. Information presented at the conference is fresh; the ideas are cutting-edge. Whether learning about #VastEarlyAmerica, state constitutions, or how museums can compete and stay relevant in today’s society, the sessions were groundbreaking, insightful, and thought provoking, and I gained perspective, as an aspiring scholar, on how historians in my field are conceptualizing and debating contested topics.

Before attending, I had no idea that there were opportunities for undergraduates to present their work.

If I were to attend another AHA annual meeting (and based on my experience, I will definitely try), there is one thing that I would do differently. Before attending, I had no idea that there were opportunities for undergraduates to present their work. Such presentations are an amazing way to gain valuable experience sharing scholarship that I highly recommend undergraduates take advantage of.

What will stick with me most about my first annual meeting is an intangible feeling of belonging and contentment. For the entirety of a long weekend, I immersed myself completely in the field of history. Every discussion, every panel, every end-of-day plenary that I attended furthered my love for the subject. To be surrounded by thousands of other people with a common interest, to walk into the Exhibit Hall and be overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of books available (and then be able to walk away with many of the books either free or heavily discounted), to end the day physically exhausted but satisfied by what I had learned and experienced—these were experiences that make me look forward to my next annual meeting. 

Interested in learning more about opportunities for undergraduates to attend the annual meeting and present their research? See the Undergraduates at the Meetingpage on the AHA website.

Kevin Diestelow graduated from the College of William & Mary in May 2021. He is currently working at a government relations firm in Washington, DC.

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