National History Day (NHD) has alumni all over the world, in numerous professions. Our new Alumni Spotlight Q&A is designed to highlight the achievements of past NHD students. This month’s Alumni Spotlight Q&A is Emily Willard.
What is your current occupation?
Research associate for the Genocide Prevention Project at the National Security Archive, a non-governmental research institute located at the George Washington University in Washington, DC. (The Archive is a great place to find primary sources for History Day projects!)
When and what category did you compete in for NHD?
I participated in the 2003 Senior Individual Documentary National History Day competition.
Can you tell us a little about your project?
My project was titled “Rosie the Riveter,” the year’s theme was “Rights and Responsibilities” and I looked at the new responsibilities that women took up for the war effort during World War II, and how that influenced the women’s rights movement.
Did you walk away with any hardware for your work?
I was awarded the University of Maryland Women’s History Award at the state level competition.
How has NHD helped shape your future?
National History Day certainly helped to shape my career path. I have always loved learning, and History Day was a wonderful opportunity to do an in-depth research project about something that I was interested in. I think my History Day experience greatly helped my college application where I continued to research human rights issues – all the way through graduate school and my current career position. The in-depth research was so important in preparing me for my career because it teaches many essential research skills that are not always covered in traditional public school curricula, such as: identifying primary sources vs. secondary sources; determining if a website is credible; developing an idea around a theme; creative analysis of source; writing a bibliography; and thinking outside of the box (among many others!).
If you could pick on favorite, defining moment from your NHD experience what would it be?
My favorite moment of National History Day was doing the interview after I screened my documentary, and my high school principle came in to hear me present my project. I remember thinking, “Wow, this is a really big deal!” I was very proud to be representing my school and the State of Maryland, and it meant so much to me to have that level of support and interest.
What did you learn from your NHD experience that other students should know?
One of the most important things I learned from history day was that my ideas matter, and that I have something of value to say. The fact that students get to select their own topics and pursue their own unique research interests—and that there is a whole community of parents, teachers, and other adults who make History Day possible— is so empowering.
Why is it important for students to compete in NHD?
I think students should compete in National History Day because it is a wonderful way to develop important research skills, especially because of the different levels of competition, and the opportunity to improve your project in-between competitions based on judge’s feedback. The whole process of developing an idea, researching it, presenting it, and having the opportunity to improve will teach students very practical, useful skills for any career.
How does NHD continue to impact your life?
My History Day experience still impacts me today. I often volunteer as a judge with Maryland History Day, and also help students at the county level with their projects. It is a great gift as I continue to learn about doing better research, writing, and creative thinking from the current students. On several occasions, History Day students have contacted me and interviewed me for their projects as an expert in my field – which brings the whole experience full circle. I still feel part of the History Day family and I get so much gratification to now be able give back and support today’s History Day students.