The History Graduate Student Association (HGSA) at William & Mary has come a long way in its 30-plus years of existence.
In the early 1980s, the university’s history department called Morton Hall its home. Times were tight. History graduate students hobnobbed with members of Phi Alpha Theta in their spare time, having no association to call their own.
However, two of HGSA’s earliest officers, Turk McCleskey and Tom Wren, labored to change the status quo. After faculty transformed a claustrophobic closet into a makeshift lounge, they worked to establish HGSA as a distinct body. Securing funding from the Student Government Association, they spearheaded an initiative to train fellow graduate students in the art of landing grants.
“The idea was not so much social,” Professor of History James P. Whittenburg pointed out, “as it was professional development.”
Though, as John Coski '83, recalls, William & Mary’s history graduate students created their own share of extracurricular entertainment as well.
“Friday afternoon touch football games” became a favorite pastime, Coski said. “We called ourselves the Squirrels after someone discovered a plastic bag of frozen squirrels in the department refrigerator, then in Morton Hall.”
Current HGSA president August Butler continues to build upon the best of both William & Mary traditions (minus the squirrels) by heading an organization that looks to facilitate graduate students’ academic and social needs. Butler is well prepared to lead in both regards, having begun dissertation research on child-rearing practices in heterodox Russian sects on the West Coast of the United States from 1900 through the mid-1960s, as well as spending precious spare time interning at the Coalition Theater in downtown Richmond.
Both Butler and treasurer Mark Guerci '11 have put HGSA funds to good use. Now entirely funded or supported through student donations, HGSA officers stock the graduate lounge with emergency snacks and caffeinated beverages to ward off term paper drowsiness. Social Chair Michaela Kleber organizes welcome back parties, monthly coffee hours and intermittent Sunday brunches to keep graduate students afloat while taking upper-division courses, teaching undergraduates or preparing to defend their dissertations.
Others, like secretary Kasey Sease, see her appointment in HGSA as a way to give back to an organization that supported her as a new graduate student in colonial history.
“I decided to run for HGSA,” Sease said, “because I knew there was a need to fill the position of secretary and I wanted to serve my fellow graduate students in some way. As a first year, I had the luxury of attending events planned by others. This year, I wanted to lend a hand in that planning as a way to give back.”
Above all, HGSA officers are most proud of their efforts in offering academic training to budding historians. Every year, the organization hosts “Historian Craft” seminars, sometimes inviting experts from off campus to explore the various issues surrounding researching, writing and publishing. Only last year, William & Mary’s history students were privileged to hear from Professor Kathleen DuVal, author of the critically acclaimed Independence Lost: Lives on the Edge of the American Revolution (2015).
Butler sees these hour-long seminars as HGSA’s “biggest accomplishment.”
In like manner, HGSA invites history faculty at William & Mary to share their diverse expertise during student workshops. Each session focuses on a particular skill that professional historians employ on a day-to-day basis: foreign language acquisition, archival research, dissertation crafting and public speaking.
Among the early officers, Coski is employed by the Museum of the Confederacy. McCleskey is a professor of history at Virginia Military Institute. Wren recently retired as dean of the Jepson School of Leadership at the University of Richmond.
HGSA’s decades-long emphasis on student professionalization has clearly borne fruit.