The Flexibility of a History Degree
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” Because I spent most of my time surrounded by teachers, I answered this question when I was young with: “Well, I want to be a teacher.” As I grew up and experienced new things, however, that question took on a greater significance.
The seeming irrevocability of the answer scared me—like in a final exam, you make a choice, turn it in, and because you can never change the answer, you are stuck with your decision forever. While the question of career was a daunting one, it did not deter me from my eventual decision to major in history. In fact, studying history has allowed me to explore different career avenues while simultaneously enabling me to immerse myself in a subject that continues to interest me.
I decided upon history as my major during the third year of community college (West Los Angeles College in Culver City, California). Most community colleges expect students to complete their general education requirements and their associate’s degree in two years, and then transfer to a four-year college or university. I took my time because in addition to not knowing what I wanted to study, I understood that whatever choice I made would pave the way for my future academic and professional career. What I did know for certain at the time, however, was that I enjoyed and excelled in the humanities. I’d had some very influential teachers in high school and passionate professors at West Los Angeles College and they eventually inspired me to choose history as my major. I also liked working with children, and it was with the goal of becoming an elementary school teacher, then, that I graduated with a major in history.
While I did not become a teacher, my career trajectory since graduating has showed me the versatility and flexibility of the history degree. After graduating from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) with a BA in history and a minor in art history, I found a job working under a grant at the conservation center of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art where I helped catalog over 7,800 photos. I used the training and skills I had received as part of my history degree to analyze the pictures, organize and manage the data collected, and work with my colleagues to keep a record of all the photos and information in both physical and digital formats. As the project came to an end, I started looking for other employment. I looked at jobs in several fields and ended up applying for a position in the history department at UCLA—I wanted to once again be part of higher education and to surround myself with like-minded individuals who would understand, better than anyone else would, what I could bring to the table as a history major.
Although I’ve been in the position of student affairs officer/graduate counselor for only a short time, I’ve discovered that I routinely apply the skills I learned as a major in the department. History, in fact, is an all-encompassing degree. Majoring in history allowed me to analyze and think critically about the past from an anthropological, psychological, sociological, economic, and political perspective. It not only helped me gain a wider cultural understanding, but also taught me how to work well as a team and communicate effectively with others. I also learned how to write, research, manage information, and interpret large amounts of data and/or primary sources. I use all of these skills in my work at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (where I continue to work part-time) and at the UCLA history department.
As part of my new job, I meet with incoming students and learn as much as I can about them and their past academic careers and current academic interests. This allows me to help prepare them for the UCLA graduate program and to ensure that they complete their degree requirements and continue to advance in their careers. I constantly reference the university’s procedures and guidelines to ensure that I give accurate information and guidance to students. I also manage the students’ files and communicate with them on a regular basis to ensure that they have a successful academic career.
While working in higher education was not my initial goal when I first chose a major in history, I hope to continue working in the field in the near future. Whether it is reading documents, analyzing them, managing and organizing student files, interacting with students, professors, staff, and other visitors, or researching and thinking about new ideas to help make a student’s life at UCLA a success, I find that I use the skills I learned during my time as a history major in the department on a daily basis. My history degree gave me the flexibility to embark on a career path that I hadn’t even imagined a few years ago, and for that I am immensely grateful.
Kamarin Takahara is graduate counselor for the department of history at the University of California, Los Angeles. She continues to work part-time for the Los Angeles County Museum in its education department. She enjoys interacting with families and meeting new people from all over the world, which she gets to do at both jobs.
This post first appeared on AHA Today.
Please read our commenting and letters policy before submitting.