MA in History

Erik Johnson, 2014

Erik Johnson

Why did you decide to pursue an M.A. in History?

I have been interested in the subject of history for most of my life. The idea of studying history at the graduate level was something I wanted to do, but it took me awhile to justify the expenditure. During the first decade of the 2000s, after I completed my bachelor’s degree, I started reading a lot of U.S. and world history. As I learned more about the past and observed the world I lived in, I realized how inadequate my own education in history was. In addition, it became clear that the general population’s understanding of the past was lacking and it appeared to be having negative consequences for our society. I worked several years as an English teacher abroad and enjoyed teaching but I became more convinced that history was the subject I wanted to teach because it seemed to be neglected in American school systems. I liked that George Mason University offered a graduate program in the Washington-area that combined a Master’s in History with a teaching certification. My original intention was to become a teacher but as I progressed in Mason’s program I became more interested in public history and the opportunities to connect to people/communities through institutions.  

What was your most rewarding class? Why?

This is a tough question to answer. I found every class intellectually stimulating and all offered insights about the past and the complexities of trying to understand it. I had outstanding professors that helped guide me throughout the program. If I had to choose one rewarding course, I would say Digital Public History was the best. It was a combination of an outstanding professor (Sharon Leon) and an excellent course syllabus that allowed students to analyze public history practices and methods as well as learn about useful digital tools. Assignments were always geared towards professional realities and honing skills relevant to a professional future in public history. By the end of the course I had developed an active blog (which I still refer to for notes on important articles/monographs), conducted a public history site review, written a content strategy for a public history project, and created a proof of concept for a digital public history project.  The proof of concept turned into a website where I still publish content nearly two years later.

How has the M.A. program helped you with your career or your personal interests?

A Master’s degree in History was required for my current job. Enrollment in the program allowed me to qualify for internships with the National Park Service in Washington, DC, which eventually led to the full-time job I have now (Park Historian at Denali National Park). As far as personal interests, the Master’s program helped me think in different ways about the history that I consume (which was already a hobby of mine). Whether it is a monograph, a museum exhibit, or a national landmark, I am able to think more critically about how the history was produced, what is missing, and how it fits into a larger historical context. 

Any career advice you would give to students in the program?

Take advantage of Mason’s proximity to Washington, DC and all the history-related institutions that exist there. When I moved to Fairfax and enrolled in the program, I immediately started volunteering at the National Mall and eventually learned about the role of the National Park Service in public history. This led to an oral history internship at Glen Echo Park followed by two history-related internships at the NPS’s Washington Headquarters and National Capital Region offices. I also volunteered for National History Day competitions in Virginia and Maryland which provided many professional connections. National History Day is also a great way to connect to students and encourage their continued exploration of the past.  I would also encourage students to present at as many history conferences as possible. There are professional connections to be made, but improving presentation skills in any subject is important for your value to a future employer.

Tell us something that people would be surprised to know about you.

I lived in Las Vegas and worked as a parking valet at a hotel-casino on the Las Vegas Strip for nearly two years. I am still recovering from the things I witnessed during that experience.