Collector of Stories

Jennie Williams ’14, American Studies, is a UMBC resident assistant, Sondheim Public Affairs Scholar and Undergraduate Research Award Scholar.

Jennie WilliamsI enrolled in American Studies 422: Preserving Places Making Spaces in Baltimore last fall because I was interested in taking part in a class where I could get involved in meaningful and original research. Dr. Nicole King, who was both the instructor and my academic advisor, encouraged me to take the class in order to broaden my technical skills. But I was also attracted by the course’s orientation to social action. With the Mapping Baybrook project, we were not just going to be collecting data, we would be making a civic contribution in partnership with Baybrook residents.

Baybrook is the conjunction of Curtis Bay and Brooklyn of south Baltimore. It was once rich with immigrant culture and thriving family businesses, but is now mostly overcome by invasive industry among the surviving residential areas. The goal of our class has been to collect the memories of community members, helping to preserve the community through their stories. For our individual projects, my classmates and I decided to choose businesses along the main streets of the community to investigate their history and impact through oral history interviews.

Mapping BaybrookFor many of my classmates, this was the first time we had ever conducted an oral history interview. We were excited to meet our different interviewees, slightly nervous (especially in the presence of a voice recorder), and curious to hear what community members would share. The interviews were not always easy, but generally I felt welcomed and heard memorable (and sometimes funny) stories about community life in good and bad times. The experience has inspired me to look for opportunities to continue this kind of community engagement, as a collector of stories that place hard facts in context of human experience.

Our class truly worked as a team throughout the semester. We got to know one another very well since we were dependent on the hard work and individual talent that each person contributed. Even after the class ended, some of my classmates and I presented our research at the Chesapeake American Studies Association (CHASA) conference hosted at the University of Maryland, College Park. It is amazing to say that URCAD was actually our second official academic conference!  But to be honest, URCAD was a bigger day for us as UMBC students, because it is the famous and prestigious event we had all heard about throughout our undergraduate careers, and it was the moment we could share our in-depth experiences with our peers, professors, friends and family.

I am very proud that we were fortunate enough to have the opportunity to present, and that my classmates were willing to pull through and create such an involved and diverse 15-minute PowerPoint variety show! With six of us presenting, each of us had approximately 1.5 minutes to speak about our individual research projects. Given how much time and effort went into my couple of minutes, they were very exciting! It was an exhilarating and satisfying feeling to see so many interested audience members as well as familiar faces filling the room. Students from previous Baybrook classes, as well as members of our own class who did not wish to present their work, were all in attendance with smiles of pride on their faces.

I hope that I have inspired other curious students who may wish to enroll in AMST 422 next time it is offered! This experience with Mapping Baybrook has provided me with practice and confidence for next year’s URCAD, when I will be presenting my very own individual undergraduate research.

Contact the author, Jennie Williams, at jennie1@umbc.edu.

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