From MHC to the National Endowment for the Humanities Grant Reader

Julia Housten Nguyen ‘95

Image courtesy of Julia Nguyen

Julia Husten Nguyen ‘95, Senior Program Officer

Major: History and German Studies

Advanced Degrees: MA and PhD in History

Employer: National Endowment for the Humanities

A typical day: Ms. Nguyen works as part of a division that funds professional development projects for teachers and educators (college faculty). Her work revolves around the grant-making process and stages, and her division offers 5-6 grant programs, staggered throughout the year. Typically, she helps applicants by talking to them, reading their drafts, giving advice. Then, she will administer the peer review process with other program officers, and make recommendations to the senior staff (ultimately, the Chairman of the agency makes the decisions). After decisions are made, she then oversees the grants that are given, and conducts oversight and reviews on the projects. On a daily basis, she might meet with someone about their draft proposal for one grant, and then conduct oversight on a project that has been funded by another grant.

How she got to the National Endowment for the Humanities: After graduation, she immediately began a track for becoming a college professor. She went to grad school right after graduation, earned an MA and PhD in History, and was offered a tenure-track position. But she did not love her work: thought she loved the research aspect of academia, she did not love teaching. 

The prospect of tenure also felt confining, so she decided to look elsewhere for a job that did not require her to teach. She found grantmaking to be interesting and began research on the field, reading up on philanthropy work and how to break into grantmaking for educators. In the process, she came across a position open with the NEH, and decided to apply to the job. She was then hired for the position and has loved the switch.

While the fundraising side of the industry was never something she wanted to do at all, she enjoys the grantmaking side to it. The division she works in deals in education and educational projects, so her experience in education and teaching was a plus (and also a requirement for the position). Though she entered her job without having any experience beforehand in the grantmaking process, she sees many similarities in her work as an educator recurring in her current position. For example, reading and evaluating proposals is very similar to reading and grading student papers.

The path as a history major to current career: Nguyen ended up doing work in a field she did not originally start out in, however, her experiences qualified her for her current career with the National Endowment for the Humanities.

As a senior, she remembers being on the History board and involved in an open search for candidates the Department was about to hire. At the time, Lipman (as chair) reminded the students about the realities of the job market, and how the decisions and their input should be taken very seriously, as it might have meant that the other candidates might not have any other job offers if not chosen. So she went into academia right after graduation knowing full well about the market in academia and for History professors, and had a very realistic idea of her chances for a tenure-track position. While she didn’t enjoy teaching, her work in academia and education prepared her for her current job. Overall, it didn’t seem like she regretted her choices, or saw them as obstacles. She just found her true calling non-linearly.

Advice for History majors who want to be where she is now:

"keep your eyes open to what kinds of work you’d like to do, and use the skill sets that History as a discipline trains you in, without necessarily becoming a historian".

As a student, she had no idea that jobs like her were out there, so maintaining curiosity and openness to the various types of work out there will help students know there are more opportunities than traditional tracks. As someone who did more exploration during graduate school, she recommends starting in undergrad that exploration. Her position, in particular, required someone with a PhD and someone with teaching experience (whether K-12 or in higher education), so having the preparation and experience in academia is important.

how the History major played a role in life since graduation: The reading, analysis, writing, and research that was infused in the training as a History major and historian was really important, and sees that incorporated daily in her work. And her agency in particular encourages employees to engage in their own independent research, as many of her colleagues do come from an academic background. She definitely brings that skill set to her work, and her workplace itself encourages and supports those skills.

Anything the History department could have done to prepare majors in the transition from curriculum to career: From what she saw as a professor, and what she sees in her current work, what is helpful is for historians to move towards hands-on, interactive projects, moving into the realm of public history and digital humanities.

While she is more of a traditionalist in terms of academia and teaching (loves work involving archives and books), new digital humanities work can be really exciting and gives students the cross-training in understanding History while developing technological skills for job preparation. However, she also feels that caution needs to be taken before executing a program involving digital humanities: sometimes projects that are created are done because digital humanities is an exciting trend, but don’t necessarily meet pedagogical goals. Therefore, careful planning should be done to insure that the technological project meets and incorporates real historical training.

Some examples she thinks that work include a web application where students work on cataloging and digitizing historical markers in the city. However, it moves beyond just photographing the landmark, as students are required to conduct research and add substantial annotations to the landmark in the app, therefore reinforcing traditional skills within the discipline. Another example (conducted in English classes among three different universities, a project called “Looking for Whitman”), involves the creation digital maps that relate Whitman’s places to his body of poetry. Again, students incorporated substantial historical research with digital tools. The MHC History department can benefit from incorporating such engagements within their classrooms, as long as it does not overshadow traditional reading and analysis.

For most people, especially at MHC, you study history because you love history (and not because you think it’s an easy major). The department can support students by “giving undergrads a larger sense of what they can do outside of academia,”  recommends Nguyen, and by helping create the connections between research, analysis, and writing as valuable tools needed in a lot of different positions.

Also, the department can support creativity and flexibility, which is one of the best strategies for students to keep in mind when searching for a job that applies their skills and interests. What she is happy to see now that was not present during her years in college was the emphasis on internships. She thinks internships are integral to exploring various opportunities, so strengthening that support will be beneficial to students.

Disclaimer: Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this profile do not represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities or the federal government.