Charting an Inclusive Future, Illinois Students Look to the Past
June 7, 2022
The past continues to inform the present at Illinois College, as undergraduate students engage in hands-on archival research to strengthen current campus interfaith and inclusion initiatives. Three student teams have recently explored the college’s historic collections with interdisciplinary scholarship projects to better understand the religious, racial, and cultural dynamics of the past and show how this history is relevant to their own lives today.
Illinois College is a small, private liberal arts college in Jacksonville, Illinois, and was the first college to grant a degree in the state. With pride in its history, the school also instills this value of historical research in its students, particularly through hands-on experiential learning in the historic collections housed within the Khalaf Al Habtoor Archives and Paul Findley Congressional Office Museum.
In 2019 the college launched the Findley Interfaith Initiative, the first of three recent projects with an emphasis on experiential learning in historical research. Student leaders, Kaylee Reynolds ‘21 and Asia Watson ‘21, as well as a graduate-level student scholar David Tauber, increased campus community awareness of interfaith studies through an interdisciplinary exploration of the collections for 1943 Illinois College alumnus U.S. Rep. Paul Findley, who served 11 terms in Congress and died in 2019 at age 98. With leadership and mentoring from Timothy McGee, Chaplain and current Interim Director for the Office of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, and Samantha Sauer, Archivist, Curator, and Assistant Professor of History, the project investigated how Findley’s undergraduate experience from 1939-1943 influenced his life and work, helping him lead as a global citizen and bridge builder.
With the abrupt transition to remote learning in the Spring of 2020, the team figured out how to continue working at a distance and then began a modified, socially distanced approach the following semester that would only have one researcher in the collections at a time. The students helped create newly accessible historic digital collections, as well as new resources to support long-term care and preservation of the historic collections. To engage their peers and the wider community, the team also offered a virtual public program in November 2020, “Becoming a Global Citizen: Paul Findley’s Illinois College Experience,” with nearly 70 students participating as well as members of the community. One student remarked on the decisive significance of active student involvement, both for the current Illinois College scholars and the late Paul Findley: “This [program] showed how the things you choose to participate in can have a lasting impact on you … Taking opportunities and putting yourself out of your comfort zone is a great way to develop skills that can help you in the future.” In 2021, the initiative was recognized by the Illinois Association of Museums with a Best Practices Award of Merit for Special Projects.
In October 2020, college leaders built upon the successful structure of this student-led scholarship with a new initiative titled Inclusive and Accessible: Addressing Gaps in Student Organization Records. The project sought to identify and address inequities in campus collecting by identifying “gaps” or missing materials in historic student organizations records, specifically examining organizations that traditionally served and/or represented underrepresented students, such as the Black Student Union. To determine missing materials, students Terena Clemons ‘22 and McKenna Servis ‘22 conducted a hybrid of on-site and virtual hands-on research during the 2020-2021 academic year. Sauer again served as the faculty lead and project lead, mindfully directing and collaborating with numerous campus offices and departments to enrich the research project and scope. The students navigated evolving campus health and safety protocols in response to COVID-19 and developed key foundational knowledge of collections with digital inventories and collaborative spreadsheets. The students meaningfully increased campus awareness of the necessity for equitable representation in institutional records with two virtual programs. In March 2021, the students’ virtual program included an optional feedback form for program attendees. The student leaders then used collected data for an April 2021 presentation.
In Spring 2021, a grant from Interfaith America supported the research and development of a Student Advisory Council for Historical Collections at Illinois College. Inspired by the campus community’s focus on justice, equity, and inclusion, the new project supported student Emily Pursley ‘24 to research, develop, and propose a student advisory council for the equitable collection and interpretation of historic campus collections. Pursley’s virtual internship included a campus presentation of research in June 2021. Sauer again served as the primary faculty lead, and the project again involved a high number of new and existing internal and external campus collaborations, calling upon professional networks and organizations. In response to Pursley’s program, one audience member noted: “I think campus collections are often an area that students often feel like they don’t have any power or influence over. Having student feedback and a dedicated student group thinking about the use and peer-to-peer teaching potential of the [collections] sounds infinitely valuable to me.”
Illinois College has sought to deliberately expand upon interdisciplinary, student-led scholarship, including engagement with the college’s Student-Faculty Research and Scholarship Program. In Summer 2021, students Ar’Mand Erving ‘23 and Ren Parks ‘23 built upon research projects to deepen initiatives linked to address gaps in the college’s historical campus records. In June 2021, the student-led scholarship was represented on an international scale when Sauer presented on the multi-year and multifaceted initiatives at the Association of Academic Museums and Galleries (AAMG) Virtual Conference. During the 2021-2022 academic year, Parks and Erving presented on their scholarship, and Parks completed an additional hands-on internship affiliated with the project.
Much good work has been done, and there is much good work to continue. Interest in supporting and advancing this scholarship continues across the campus community, as new students and project partners join to advance this critical work and scholarship. Undergraduate students serve as both scholars and leaders, emphasizing the importance of our students as active stakeholders as well as emerging experts.
Timothy McGee is Chaplain and current Interim Director for the Office of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion at Illinois College, where Samantha Sauer is Archivist, Curator, and Assistant Professor of History.
These projects were funded by Campus Innovation Grants and Racial Equity & Interfaith Cooperation Awards, part of the We Are Each Other’s Fund from IFYC, now Interfaith America.