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.