The Day I Decided to Major in History

July 17, 2020

Graduate student Justina Licata explains how a junior high school teacher’s passion and influence led her to embrace the study of history as a lifelong vocation.

Hello, my name is Justina Licata, and I am a Ph.D. student studying history at UNC-G. And my humanities moment relates to how I became a history major many years ago, and it dates back to my eighth grade year. I think I was 13, I may have been 12. I went to school in Southern California in a town called Yorba Linda, it’s actually where Nixon was born. Anyway, side-note. And I was very excited to take history, particularly U.S. history, I loved, loved history because my parents really made it a big part of my childhood by buying my sister and I lots of great books about history and art history. So I already had a really great foundation for loving history, but my eighth grade history/social studies teacher really kind of cemented it for me. Her name was Mrs. McClain and she was a fabulous teacher. She did a great job of making history feel alive and present, not just something that happened in the far past.

One way she did this was, I was in eighth grade during the 2000 Bush V. Gore election. And she took the time to, on an almost daily basis, kind of update us as that recount was occurring and explaining to us what was happening, how the Supreme Court participated in that election’s decision, and she just really made the present feel as if it’s a historical moment that we were living through and kind of appreciating that moment, whether we liked the outcome of that election or not, as a historical moment to pay attention to and that something people in the future will be reflecting upon, which is kind of poignant because the dissertation I’m working on is actually quite contemporary, something that’s happened in the 90’s mostly. And so it’s been interesting to think back on how her, kind of, encapsulating that the present is a historical moment as well was really poignant for me.

One other thing I wanted to mention is that there was a particular lesson that she gave that really kind of made me realize that you could study history as a career and not just study, you know, the math and the science and the English, you know. That actually history could be something that you spent much of your college career dedicated to, which was something I didn’t realize even though I loved it so much. So one day she, I don’t actually recall what the lesson was about, but I’m assuming it was the Civil War because of what I will tell you in a minute, but she took the time to tell us a little bit about a paper she wrote in college, and I remember that she was writing, she was asked to write a paper about two years in the Federal Congress, so to examine two years in which of the House and Senate and what they did during that one session. So, she, I remember she told us that she chose to write about the 37th United States Congress which was the Congress that was sitting during the Civil War, so half of the Congress was not actually attending, half the members were not actually attending the sessions and going to Congress and D.C. because they had seceded.

And I just remember being so fascinated by this, and I couldn’t even explain why I was so fascinated, I just thought wow that sounds so fascinating, and I wanted to write something similar. And, I remember thinking, well, that must, I don’t think everyone’s probably having this reaction to her explaining a paper she wrote in college, but I did remember also thinking that in that moment, realizing, oh, you can actually choose to major in history, and you can focus and learn, you know, in depth, about this topic, and that that was, in fact, what I really wanted to do, that I just loved history so much, and the idea of making this thing that I loved a career was truly remarkable and really poignant for me.

And so pretty much after that day, I told anyone who cared that I was going to, in fact, major in history and that I wanted to do something related to history as a career. I didn’t know what that would be yet, but I did, in fact, go and do that, and I was really, I’m just so grateful that Mrs. McClain made that something that felt accessible to me, that she made it so that it felt like you can absolutely go and do this, and she kind of also gave me further insight as to how colleges worked which was really helpful as I was entering high school and starting to think about college in a more serious way, so I am very very indebted to Mrs. McClain, and I haven’t spoken with her in a while, so I hope to try and maybe track her down and tell her how much I appreciated what she did for me way back then.

So, thank you so much, I appreciate it, and that is my humanities moment. Okay, thanks.