'My project taught me why public history matters'

Claire Deng

Literatures in English
Newton, Mass.

What are the most valuable skills you gained from your Arts & Sciences education?

I learned how to closely read any text on multiple levels and how to ask meaningful questions, as well as how to analyze and synthesize complicated ideas and make connections between different disciplines. I also honed my communication skills — comprehension through listening and observation and efficiency and clarity in speaking and writing. 

What was your favorite class and why?

girl in front of sign

My favorite class was Tolstoy: History and Counterculture, with Professor Litvak in the history department. Professor Litvak is an amazing lecturer and Tolstoy a wonderful writer, but the most special thing about the class was its structure. We were all given study partners to discuss our readings with on a weekly basis, and instead of writing essays, we turned in weekly summaries of our conversations and our final was a one-on-one discussion with the professor. It was the most collaborative environment I've ever had in a class. I cherish the memories we created that term —hours diving deep into literature in Goldwin Smith [Hall], midnight revelations and life conversations. I came out of the class with long-lasting friendships and many life lessons. 

What have you accomplished as a Cornell student that you are most proud of?

I am most proud of the year-long research project I did at The History Center in Tompkins County on Early Asian American History in Tompkins County. Nobody else had done a project on the topic yet, and there was very little to go off from in the archives, so I built this project from the ground up. Through my research, I recovered countless names and stories, curated the first two exhibit cases featuring Asian American families at The History Center, facilitated connections within the Asian American community and compiled the first research collection ever on early Asian American local history, which will officially become part of The History Center's archives this summer. I've learned how to use a variety of different research methods and how to speak and write historical narratives into existence. The project taught me why public history matters: it brings the histories of people, families and businesses back into the community fold, reaffirming that they come from here and belong here. 

How have your beliefs or perspectives changed since you first arrived at Cornell?

  1. woman in front of history exhibit
    Coming to Cornell has really helped me get out of the liberal bubble I used to live in. In particular, meeting people from different religious backgrounds and people on the far left or conservative ends of the political spectrum has opened me up to a wide variety of perspectives from which I've learned a lot. I've discovered that academics can be more than theoretical knowledge and abstract language — there are opportunities to work on and study material things and to learn in hands-on ways. I've also learned that I really enjoy the small town vibe and being in nature. 


Every year, our faculty nominate graduating Arts & Sciences students to be featured as part of our Extraordinary Journeys series. Read more about the Class of 2022.

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