Honors Student Highlight: Lizzy Schmidt

| Ian McCormack

“As a kid, I was always that idly curious child, always wondering why things were the way that they were.”

Lizzy Schmidt is no stranger to exploration; she has always been guided by a persistent spark of curiosity. Whenever Lizzy and her sister had a burning question, they would go to their father, who would offer them either a long or short version of the answer. While her sister would be quick to get an answer right away, Lizzy would always go for the more detailed explanation.

As years passed, her inquisitive attitude only grew stronger. In her continuous search for answers, Lizzy began to develop an interest in the field of History because “it always seemed to answer those ‘why’ questions.”

In thinking of future career possibilities, Lizzy initially wanted to be a teacher, a position which would enable her to fulfill her father’s role of guide and mentor for others. However, as she grew older, Lizzy became aware that “history is one of those topics that you either really love or really hate,” and realized that she wouldn’t have the patience to pursue History in an area where it wouldn’t always be appreciated.

When searching for colleges, the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire popped up on her radar because it offered an interesting specialization: Public History. At the time, Lizzy had never heard of the subject area; she was only drawn toward it due to her past interests in History. However, after researching the field and taking a deeper look at the department’s opportunities, she realized it would offer her a way to continue to pursue a career in History without becoming a teacher. In addition, she knew she wanted to find a way to become involved with museum curation, and she saw Public History as a perfect fit for this interest.

Lizzy was also intrigued by the Honors Program, which was attractive because of Honors electives and colloquia – courses that offer smaller class sizes and more in-depth exploration of material. This would provide an environment where she could focus on “understanding broader themes and concepts, which is definitely more of [her] learning style.” The best classes, Lizzy insists, incorporate discussion and debate as central to the learning process, and are often “over before you realize it.”

Lizzy Schmidt, Greg Kocken

Lizzy Schmidt (right) and Greg Kocken (left), an archivist with McIntyre Library.

It didn’t take long for Lizzy to find her place at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. Right away, she found significant opportunities to involve herself with the public history of the area. As part of her financial aid, Lizzy was eligible for work study, so early on in her first semester she began searching for positions on campus. Coincidentally, the University Archives happened to have an opening, which Lizzy was quick to take advantage of given its connection to her subject area. After a brief interview, she was taken on as a staff member and began gaining familiarity with the procedures for “one of the main stops for historical research” in Eau Claire and the six adjacent counties.

In addition to facilitating student and faculty-led research, Lizzy assisted with exhibiting collections from the archives. In the spring of her freshman year, she helped create a display for the University’s Robert Frost manuscript collection, featuring signed books, holiday cards from the poet himself, and the original manuscripts for several of his poems.

Lizzy also found ways to extend her knowledge of Public History through the Honors Program. During the second semester of her freshman year, Lizzy took an Honors colloquium titled “Worship in American Churches”. Taught by Dr. Nick Smiar and Reverend Don Wisner, it provided a comprehensive, unrestricted overview of the worship practices of religions such as Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. 

The class benefited her study of Public History by highlighting the connection between tradition and its physical representations. For example, after discussing the use of icons in the Eastern Orthodox Church, the class was able to visit a worship service and examined some firsthand. This hands-on approach to learning is a hallmark of the Honors Program, and in Lizzy’s view is one of many reasons “why Public History works so well" for her.

Lizzy’s most valuable experience with Public History was through the Sounds of Eau Claire project, an effort led by Dr. Daniel Ott, a resident public historian, to document the history of the music scene in Eau Claire. She was introduced to the idea during through her junior year as part of “Introduction to Public History,” a requirement for the Public History emphasis.

As a primary project for the class, students were split into pairs and assigned an individual to interview. Combining the interview material with background research, each pair had to produce a transcript and a podcast for Blugold Radio (now Converge Radio). Interview candidates ranged from musicians and event organizers to parents and local business owners – each of which offered a different perspective on the music’s cultural economy during the late 20th century.

Lizzy Schmidt

Lizzy Schmidt adjusting lighting at a digitization station. 

After a year hiatus, Lizzy returned to the project in the spring of 2018 as part of “Seminar in Public History,” another class requirement for the Public History emphasis. After previous success with the interviews, Dr. Ott felt that it was time for Sounds of Eau Claire to undertake a deeper exploration of the city’s music history. The scope of this new project was far-reaching: to collect and catalog the Eau Claire’s history with music in digital formats through taking photographs and recording oral histories of notable individuals.

The first part of the effort was the History Harvest, a process which has become standardized and is performed across the country in many different capacities within the study of Public History. For their Harvest, the history department partnered with the Chippewa Valley Museum, using their location as a base of operations.

The team established stations for the digitization of artifacts and oral history collection, and the entirety of the Eau Claire community was invited to attend to share their stories, experiences, and perspectives, as well as any historical artifacts related to the history of music within the community. It was a celebration of “a side of Eau Claire that people didn’t really know about.”

For this collection experience, Lizzy worked at one of the digitization stations. These stations consisted of two people, one of whom took photographs to document historical artifacts while the other conducted an interview with the owner, collecting information about each artifact’s origin and importance.

Lizzy Schmidt, Mackenzie Walters, Michael Matthews

Lizzy Schmidt (right) and Mackenzie Walters (center) digitizing a violin belonging to Michael Matthews (left).

This process serves to overcome one of the main hurdles of museum work – individuals generally do not wish to part with their collections. Digitization means that “we can still see, and we can still study these things, but we don’t take these [collections] away.” The History Harvest was overwhelmingly a success; more than forty individuals attended Harvest events and shared their stories.

The next step for Sounds of Eau Claire was publication. However, the team first had to sort through the overwhelmingly large collection they had amassed to find themes for possible exhibits; “we all had to look at different things in our collections and see if we could give our objects some historical context.”

Through their combined efforts, she and several other groups created a series of online exhibitions, combining oral histories and artifacts into seamless narratives to reveal the ways in which music impacted the lives of individuals and the Eau Claire community from the mid-20th century to today. All exhibits and podcasts produced by the project are published and updated regularly on the Sounds of Eau Claire website and can also be found at Converge Radio.

Throughout this past summer, Lizzy served as the Project Manager for Sounds of Eau Claire, assisting with several additional digitization sessions and advertising the project at local music events. She’s also continued her study of music and community and is in the process of completing her capstone project for the Public History program on the subject. She’s simultaneously submitting applications for graduate schools, and is considering the University of Minnesota, Loyola University, Cooperstown University, and George Washington University.

Though much has changed since she arrived at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, Lizzy’s idle curiosity is stronger than ever, leading her onward in pursuing her passion for applying the study of history to the world around her.

She credits her experiences in the Honors Program as fundamental to encouraging her pursuit of Public History and recommends that all students strive to find ways to learn and grow through real-world, hands-on experiences.

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