By Natascha Toft Roelsgaard, Ohio University
Back in 2006, I spent nearly four weeks driving through the southern states with my family. From the back of a rental van, I took in the view of the open plains and tattered shotgun houses that Hurricane Katrina had ripped apart, as we drove through Louisiana toward Mississippi. To say that I was overwhelmed by what I saw would be a complete understatement. For a teenage kid coming from Denmark, a small Scandinavian country who invented the concept of “hygge” to sustain the long and dark winter months, natural disasters were something that belonged on TV, not in real life.
As we witnessed the aftermath of the hurricane, I recall being captivated by the journalists who went out of their way to report on the people that Katrina had left behind, who were now facing displacement and poverty. I realized then the importance of journalism as a means for these people to tell their stories and voice their concerns; that the work and grits of these reporters were essential in telling the rest of the world what was going on. It took me nearly ten years, and a rather windy road, to realize that I wanted to be a journalist myself, and that I too wanted to tell the stories often untold. It hit me the first time I walked into Mike Sweeney’s office, who had by chance—and to my luck—been assigned as my academic adviser when I came to Ohio University for an exchange semester in 2015. There he was, amongst stacks of papers, books, and colorful oil paintings, leaned back in his chair with his eyes closed, telling me about his life as a journalist and historian. Sweeney’s passion and guidance steered me toward a master’s degree in journalism. It has been more than three years since I first walked into his office, and I am now in my first year of pursuing a doctoral degree in journalism at E.W. Scripps. His mentorship and guidance—including his wicked Trivia knowledge—has been a source of inspiration and motivation for me to get where I am today. He was also the one who encouraged me to submit my work to AJHA.
When I attended AJHA in Salt Lake City this fall, I was amazed by the kindness and camaraderie I encountered there. I had been told ahead of time that the organization would be extremely welcoming and that it was more like an academic family than a formal conference, and oh how true it was! Being amongst a group of fellow historians, whose work I have been admiring for years (Maurine Beasley!), watching them do their magic and share my work with them was both intimidating and humbling, but most of all, extremely uplifting.
AJHA is a wonderful opportunity for graduate students to interact with historians from all across the country. It is without a doubt intimidating to present your work in front of your academic heroes, but their willingness to share their experience and research was overwhelming. The support and advice I received after presenting my work at the conference is invaluable to my further studies, and it has allowed me not only to broaden my research scope, but furthermore opened doors for potential collaboration with fellow historians in the future.
I left the conference feeling inspired and supported by my newfound academic pack, and I cannot wait to go back and see everyone again.