Our Stories

Connecting with History: Student Wins Research Fellowship

Elizabeth Humphrey '07 has lived and breathed history since she was a young girl reading the "American Girls" and "Dear America" historical-themed books. She took family trips along the Oregon Trail and to Lewis and Clark museums. She went to Civil War reenactments, and got excited about visiting the Library of Congress on a childhood trip to Washington, D.C.

Her love of history even crept into her playtime. "When I played with dolls, I didn't just play dolls -- I played dolls of the Revolutionary War," she says, with a laugh.

This summer, Humphrey will sift through the pages of more serious books, as she searches some of the best early American history archival collections in the country. Humphrey is one of 10 college students nationwide to receive a competitive SHEAR/Mellon Undergraduate Fellowship. The fellows will spend three weeks in Philadelphia researching their own chosen thesis while working with historians from the McNeil Center for Early American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.

For Humphrey, who grew up in Dallas, Ore., the idea of having access to such valuable tomes is exciting. Her topic of interest is one that's close to home -- Jason Lee and his mission to Oregon, which led to him founding Willamette University -- but she hopes that in Philadelphia she can find more information on Lee and other Methodist missionaries. Many historians already have grappled with one major question about Lee, Humphrey says: whether he was trying to colonize and create a white settlement.

"There's a statue of Jason Lee over there," she says, pointing toward the Capitol building, "and if you look at the writing on it, it says 'First missionary in Oregon,' and under that it says 'Colonizer.' That kind of epitomizes the problem many people have with Jason Lee. He was the first missionary, but he wasn't very successful."

But Humphrey is seeking more about Lee's background and the larger missionary culture of his time. She hopes her research will reveal more about the world Lee and his contemporaries lived in, and what led them to venture into the unknown to create their own missions.

The history of religion and its impact on society always have been fascinating topics to Humphrey. "Especially in the United States, I think religion has had a huge impact on the development of American cities and the development of the American identity."

Despite her long love for history, it wasn't the subject Humphrey planned to major in when she first came to Willamette. She wasn't into history so much in high school. Then during her first year of college, she took two history courses from faculty members Leslie Dunlap and Kara Ritzheimer, who rekindled her interest in the subject and helped her realize it only made sense to pursue it as a major.

She even uses her history-oriented mind when approaching her other love, debate. As a member of Willamette's highly ranked debate team, Humphrey credits the activity as one of the things that has shaped her the most academically. It has made her more organized and given her confidence about speaking in public. And when she debates an issue of the day -- such as U.S. foreign policy or the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians -- she views it with a historical perspective.

"History provides a specific lens with which to view the present," she says. "I believe you use history in the way that you think. Personally, history has made me more critical and has taught me the importance of connecting current events to the past."