Student returns with new knowledge of past

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September 9, 2008

8:28 PM

Not many students at the College of William and Mary spent their summers getting paid to decipher and analyze the surprisingly messy scrawl of Revolutionary War officer Henry Knox’s handwritten letters and then publish their own original work on the subject. But Michael Blaakman ’09 did just that after being named one of fifteen Gilder Lehrman History Scholars.

Sponsored since 2003 by The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, the fellowship is a five-week, paid program in New York City for exceptional undergraduates studying history. Student scholars met with renowned professors and archivists to analyze primary source documents. These efforts resulted in the publication of the fellows’ own original works.

“It has become the gold standard for admission to the most prestigious graduate schools in U.S. history,” history professor Scott Nelson said in an e-mail this week. “Being a fellow definitely puts you on the radar of faculty in the history profession.”

Their projects will be used as teaching guides in high school and college classrooms and eventually will be published online. Blaakman worked with the documents of Henry Knox, the famed artillery officer of the Continental Army and the country’s first Secretary of War. Blaakman analyzed Knox’s writings on the nature of treason in the Revolutionary War, one such essay is titled “Dangerous Designs and Treasonable Conspiracies.”

The 2008 fellows came from Harvard University, Yale University, Stanford University and Rice University, as well as the College.

Blaakman, a double major in history and religious studies, found out about the program after hearing stories from one of his best friends, David Williard ’07, who completed the fellowship in 2006 and is now working toward a Ph.D in 19th-century American history at the University of North Carolina — Chapel Hill.
Williard said the application process is a good primer for applying to graduate schools, calling it a “diet grad school application.”

“We look for students with academic achievement, excellent references, and evidence of an interest in history outside the school curriculum,” program spokeswoman Sarah Bowman said.

Blaakman and his fellow scholars were exposed to extensive archives, such as the more than 60,000 historical documents housed by the Institute. Scholars also met with archivists from Columbia University, the New York Public Library and the New York Historical Society.

Blaakman was especially enthused by his encounters with Columbia history professor Eric Foner, whom
Blaakman described as “among the most prominent living American historians,” and “outlandishly awesome.”

“We were so overwhelmed by the magnitude of Foner’s career and personal history that he became a kind of Chuck Norris figure to our seminar,” Blaakman said.

Blaakman attributed his selection to the program as well his success within the Gilder Lehrman History program to his experiences and mentors at the College.

“Our history program is incredible,” he said. “The interaction we have with professors, in a small classroom and even on a personal level, really affords William and Mary students the opportunity to develop intellectually at a much faster rate.”

Blaakman’s experience this summer confirmed his decision to further pursue history. He strongly advises college students to apply for fellowships in their areas of study before committing to a life of academia.

Blaakman is now shifting gears from the archives to the classroom as he embarks on his honors thesis before graduation next semester. He said that he is bringing back to the College both stronger analytical and historical writing skills and increased competence in conducting archival research.

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