When I first heard about the Civil War Institute’s Summer Conference and its scholarship program for high school students, I was a senior in high school, dead-set on becoming a Civil War historian. I had no idea how to go about achieving that goal yet, although I had already been accepted to attend Gettysburg College in the fall, which seemed like a good first step. I applied rather last minute for the program, and the fact that I was so generously awarded a scholarship to attend has made all the difference in my college experience. The summer conference is most easily described as an amazing, eye-opening experience that allowed me to bond closely with Civil War enthusiasts my own age. Each program we attended was intriguing, and offered angles on either familiar or unfamiliar subjects that I had never considered before. It was such a rewarding experience to meet historians I had looked up to for so long, discuss both their writing and my questions about their ideas, and do it all on the campus of my new school. All of the scholarship students quickly bonded, as we were some of the youngest people attending the conference and we all had a similar passion for Civil War history.
The setup of the programs we attended was perfect, from the specific events for scholarship recipients to the large, conference-wide sessions. Each segment of the program gave each of us the opportunity to form our own opinions, and then have multifaceted discussions about them. One of the first sessions that we attended as a group was a conversation between Dr. Peter Carmichael and Dr. James McPherson about Dr. McPherson’s classic book, Battle Cry of Freedom. As I sat with students I had only met that day, the conversation moved into a discussion of the Civil War in today’s memory, which struck a chord with all of the scholarship students. We realized that the conference was not only about learning history, but about applying it to our lives today.
Throughout the next several days, all of the scholarship students grew close; we went from being complete strangers to staying up late at night talking and singing old Civil War songs together on the battlefield at Petersburg. We are still in contact today, talking about history, politics, and our daily lives. The experiences that we shared last summer gave us a common background that we will remember for a lifetime. As my friend and fellow student Rachel Hoyle put it, “Meeting with world-renowned authors, taking private battlefield tours, and traveling to Gettysburg and Petersburg were things I never imagined I would do before graduating high school. More than that, the CWI connected me with great friends who love history as much as I do! It was truly a once in a lifetime opportunity that I’ll never forget.”
Because of my participation in the Institute’s Summer Conference, I felt even more prepared for my first semester at Gettysburg College. I had already met professors with whom I would be taking classes, as well as those involved directly with the Civil War Institute. I had become familiar with the campus and all of its buildings, and had the chance to fully explore the massive battlefield that is now practically right outside my door. As I looked forward to my first semester at Gettysburg, my experiences with the conference prompted me to choose a first-year pre-orientation program centered around Civil War history and leadership. The experience was reminiscent of the summer conference, and most of the activities we did were incredibly similar. I felt more at home, and far less concerned about “fitting in” during my first few weeks.
My experiences at the conference also prompted me to volunteer at the Civil War Institute this fall, which has been one of the best experiences of my semester. Through transcribing documents for the CWI, I’ve narrowed down my career interests, and have been able to ease into college life surrounded by familiar faces and work that I enjoy. With this experience motivating me, I applied for the CWI’s Pohanka Internship Program and am currently looking forward to interning at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park this summer. All of these wonderful opportunities that I could never have even imagined – meeting historians and authors I had looked up to for years, visiting major battlefields, meeting other history enthusiasts my age, becoming a volunteer at the CWI, and working with the National Park Service – began with a scholarship to attend the summer conference. I am truly thankful for the amazing opportunities the conference provided me, and I hope that many more eager high school students will follow in my steps.