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History + religious studies = a winning combination

| Sandy Taylor

When Sarah Westad was in high school, National History Day made an impression that would change her future. The topics she explored during the scheduled activities introduced her to a new and exciting side of history, planting a seed of interest that took root years later.

In fall 2013 Sarah entered UW-Eau Claire as a declared social work major, a freshman with a plan. By the middle of that first semester, however, she began to have doubts. She felt that social work just wasn’t the right fit for her, but it was also not an easy decision to change her academic plan.

After some consideration, Sarah found inspiration in her past.

“The National History Day program had allowed me to explore historic topics that interested me but that went beyond the generic social studies curriculum, exposing me to a more applicable, relevant version of the past that made me excited to study history,” Sarah says. “Instead of becoming an undeclared major, I considered that experience and declared a major in history, specifically public history.”

As she continued her studies, Sarah found that remaining open to possibilities enabled her to create a path toward what she truly wants to do in life. During her sophomore year, she enrolled in a religious studies class with Dr. Charlene Burns simply to fill a humanities requirement, but ended up declaring religious studies as a minor.

“Dr. Burns quickly became my favorite professor, and I fell in love with the religious studies department and its unique relevance to my history courses,” Sarah says.

Participating in research also served to reinforce her passion for history.

“During my senior year I took a public history seminar in which our class collaborated with the Chippewa Valley Museum to create an exhibit based on the life and photography of Daniel Bastian Nelson, an early 20th-century Eau Claire resident and amateur photographer,” Sarah says. “I wrote my capstone paper on the role of Andrew Johnson in the hanging of alleged Lincoln conspirator Mary Surratt, a topic which has captivated my interest since I was a teen.”

During her time at UW-Eau Claire, Sarah remained open to possibilities, enriching her studies with experiences outside the classroom.

“I went on the Civil Rights Pilgrimage over spring break during my sophomore year. It was undoubtedly one of the most formative experiences of my college career and brought history out of the textbooks as we traveled through museums and historic sites related to the American Civil Rights Movement,” Sarah says. “I met so many people and heard an incredible number of significant yet unheard narratives by Civil Rights activists. I also learned about the genuine need for social justice in the 21st century, particularly in the areas of educational inequality.“

Sarah graduated in May 2016. Since then she has worked in a variety of positions related to her studies.

“Immediately after graduation, I became a VISTA for the Minnesota Literacy Council where I was part of their Summer Reads program, designed to combat the ‘summer slide’ in low-income and minority students,” Sarah says. “I worked with staff at Eastside Neighborhood Services and the Boys & Girls Club Jerry Gamble Branch in Minneapolis to implement literacy enrichment activities for K-6 students during summer programming.

“Following this, I became an elementary literacy tutor with the Minnesota Reading Corps. Reading Corps allowed me to return to my old elementary school and work with K-3 students one-on-one to focus in on their individuality and to spark growth in fluency so that they will be able to read proficiently at grade level,” Sarah says. “I also was recently offered an interpreter position at the Gibbs Farm historical site in Minneapolis.”

Looking to the future, Sarah hopes to continue working with elementary students on literacy to prepare them for future success in all areas of life. She also would like to continue her education in related fields and hopes to one day develop engaging and relevant educational programs at museums or historic sites.

Sarah would like to tell future and current students not to worry too much about switching majors if they feel they are better suited for a different program.

"I was adamant that I was going to stay a social work major no matter what, and I think it’s a common ideology that students don’t want to switch their majors,” Sarah says. “However, I learned a lot more and enjoyed my classes significantly more after switching to the public history program, and even more after becoming a religious studies minor because it took me one step away from what I didn’t want to do and one step closer to what I do want to do."

Sarah extends her particular gratitude to the following individuals for the positive influence they had on her college career:

  • Dr. Charlene Burns, who first initiated my interest in religious studies and fostered that interest until my graduation and even into today.
  • Dr. Steven Fink, who always stimulated great class discussions, mixed with intriguing lectures and YouTube videos to make RELS 334 one of the highlights of my undergraduate experience.
  • Dr. Michael Axelrod, for giving me the opportunity to work with the Academic Intervention Clinic during my three years at UW-Eau Claire.