Phi Alpha Theta MU members experience New Mexico

Nikki Schaffer
Features Editor

Every other year the National History Honor Society, Phi Alpha Theta hosts a Biennial National Conference that allows members to present their historical research papers to a panel of professors and students. This year, three Phi Alpha Theta Millersville University members, Tracy Barnett, Sharon Hess and Christopher O’Brien represented MU at the 2014 Biennial National Conference from January 2-5. The conference convened in the southwest city of Albuquerque, NM, where students stayed at the Tamaya Hyatt in Santa Ana Pueblo—“an Indian reservation associated with a rich Navajo history,” O’Brien explained.

Phi Alpha Theta MU members (from left) Christopher O’Brien, Tracy Barnett and Sharon Hess take in the view outside of the conference.

Phi Alpha Theta MU members (from left) Christopher O’Brien, Tracy Barnett and Sharon Hess take in the view outside of the conference.

For the next four days, Barnett, Hess and O’Brien would listen to presentations, present their own research, meet and network with new people and try to squeeze in some adventures during their down time. O’Brien, who obtained his bachelors at the University of Pittsburgh in medieval history, is now a graduate student at MU studying American military history, specifically the Civil War. He presented his paper on regimental history of the 3rd Delaware. A portion of O’Brien’s research was collected by using old letters of correspondence between soldiers, some that were a part of his family’s collection, to study the professionalization of the volunteer during the wartime. While gathering his research, O’Brien acquired considerable new knowledge; however, it was one amusing story in particular that caught his attention.
“I uncovered a good-humored rivalry between two soldiers in the 3rd Delaware. One was Captain William J. McKaig and the other was 1st Lieutenant Albanis L. Anderson. The regiment was very low on food after the Battle of Antietam, and both McKaig and Anderson wrote home to their wives asking for them to mail boxes of food. McKaig wrote later about how both he and Anderson received the boxes, but how McKaig’s food was all smashed to bits inside. He noted how Anderson’s food arrived unscathed and he even spent the majority of the letter describing the mess in his box and ideas for packing it more securely for the next time. It made me laugh a great deal.”
Although O’Brien fulfilled much of his learning through his research, the experience of attending the conference enabled him to feel additionally prepared for his future plans to publish his own work.

The mountains of New Mexico offered a vast change of scenery from the Millersville University campus.

The mountains of New Mexico offered a vast change of scenery from the Millersville University campus.

“The national director of Phi Alpha Theta, Dr. Graydon Tunstall, provided concise, thorough, and brutally honest information on how to get published. Sometimes the prospects look bleak, but the expert and inside advice at this panel left me with a feeling of confidence and higher ambition. Tunstall told a story of how his recent publication ‘Blood on the Snow,’ received scathing remarks from publishers at Yale University. He walked out on them, persevered, and published with Kansas University Press and has sold tens of thousands of copies,” O’Brien said.
An avid history buff since High school, Barnett is currently an undergraduate BA history major with a minor in government at MU. Barnett presented her paper on the impact of sectionalism on the Know-Nothing Party in the 1856 election.
“Typically when individuals think of the 1856 election James Buchanan comes to mind, but I wanted to present a different perspective of the election,” she said.
From this experience Barnett hopes to use what she has learned from others to preserve in her speaking and presentational skills.

All three of the Phi Alpha Theta members expressed their love of the natural beauty of New Mexico.

All three of the Phi Alpha Theta members expressed their love of the natural beauty of New Mexico.

“I found the faculty panels about Vietnam and peacetime nuclear weapons testing particularly engaging. Mealtimes provided an excellent opportunity to converse with other students and professors about research topics. I am currently in the process of exploring graduate school options; so it was helpful to have the opportunity to attend the panel on Graduate school application and hear others’ opinions,” Barnett.
Hess is also working towards a degree in history, it being the only degree which encompasses all of her intellectual interests: economics, sociology, mathematics, languages, and science. Previously, Hess worked as a pastry chef: although creatively rewarding, a job that was competitively demanding and highly stressful. After working at this job through her twenties, Hess decided that she missed the intellectually stimulating environment that only sitting in the classroom can fulfill.
“I presented the research I conducted for history Departmental Honors titled ‘Brewed in Penn’s Wood’s: German and English Beer Production in Pennsylvania between 1681 and 1800.’ My work surveys the Old World traditions of these two cultures that were renowned for their beers and the ways in which change to these traditions was necessitated by their new home. I presented my work to not only gain more experience in presenting in panels, but to share my scholarship with others and receive feedback from my peers,” Hess said.
While the convention provided a valuable learning experience for Barnett, Hess, and O’Brien, the three found some time to explore. Hess, who was familiar with the area and traveling with her husband and six-week-old baby on the trip, found time to eat some pie in Pie Town, visit the Very Large Array, and catch up with some old friends.
The weather was in the pleasant 50s while they were there, offering a break from the snowy weather Pa has been experiencing. With such amiable weather, Barnett enjoyed admiring the scenery and walking trails. O’Brien decided to travel trails with a group of strangers by horseback, describing the NM landscape as “flat, beautiful, desert lands.”
“The trail was very desert-like and out in the middle of no-where, but it was very beautiful. I think we went by the Rio Grande River. I rode alongside some ladies from California and the group behind us spoke among each other in what I think was French,” O’Brien said, who was able to ride a horse named Chief on the trail.
Whether at the conference or exploring the beauty of the southwest, the trio was able to pursue their passions amongst fellow historians.

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