Rudy Breteler '11

I graduated from St. Lawrence University in 2011 with honors in history. I’m positive that history was the perfect major for me, and that St. Lawrence was the ideal place to study it. As liberal arts students, our degrees don’t advertize capability in a trade, but mastery of two broad skills which will serve us far better in life; critical thinking and writing. Because I chose to major in history, employers and graduate schools know that I chose a field of study which put particular emphasis on those two skills, and also gave me experience doing research, critically reading different kinds of texts, and effectively responding to, formulating, and articulating intellectual arguments.

In the SLU history department, I found a skilled, diverse, and professional faculty which was always open to meeting with me, discussing their classes, and helping me in any way they could. The department gives students the leeway to lean towards whatever area of study interests us within the scope of the broader major, while still exposing us to the diverse academic specialties of the field. Personally, I chose to direct my studies towards modern Jewish history. I was able to do so by augmenting the directly relevant classes, such as “History of the Middle East” and “The Holocaust,” with other classes not related to Jewish history. I did this by focusing my individual research assignments towards my area of interest. For instance, in Dr. DeGroat’s ‘European Identities’ class, I wrote a paper about the identity of the European Jewish community; in Dr. Eissenstat’s Ottoman History class, my research paper explored the question of how the Jews of the late Ottoman Empire responded to nationalism and the early Zionist movement. Combined with other relevant courses in the government and religious studies departments, I was able to use this method to craft out my own unique four-year education in my specific area of historical interest. I view this as a mark of credit to the flexibility and diversity of the SLU history department and faculty.

All history majors at SLU are required to take a 299 professional seminar, designed to help us understand what a historian really is and does. Oriented around a subject within the instructor’s field of expertise, these classes take students back to the basics to pick apart the concepts of historiography, primary and secondary sources, and the most elementary question of “what is history, and how does it contribute to our greater understanding of the world?” My 299, taught by Dr. Schrems and oriented around the American Revolution, was among the most rewarding classes I’ve ever taken. Students are also required to take classes from different geographic regions, which brought me out of my western bubble and exposed me to historical fields that I’d never before considered, including my wonderful experience studying African history with Dr. Carotenuto. I would strongly encourage students to reach outside of their area of historical interest as often as they can.

In my senior year, I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to work on a two semester long independent study, culminating in my honors thesis. I met with my thesis advisor, Dr. Eissenstat, every week, and stood before the entire department twice; once halfway through the year to present the progress of my research, and once at the end of the year to defend my thesis. In a testament to exactly the kind of advantage which a small, teaching oriented university like St. Lawrence offers to students, all of the professors in the department had read my thesis by the end of the year and were giving me advice, asking intelligent questions, and helping me with edits for my final draft. My thesis began as a question of where the special relationship between the United States and Israel had originated, and ended up being an examination of the dynamics of power within the American government. I explored Henry Kissinger’s role within the Nixon White House with regards to Middle Eastern diplomacy during the critical first two years of Nixon’s administration. Writing my honors thesis was by far the most challenging academic experience that I’ve ever had, and I believe that it’s the part of my time at St. Lawrence that I will most remember and value years later. Over the course of my honors research and writing I pulled together all of the skills that I had accumulated during my years as a student of history at SLU, and was proud of the accomplishment that I was able to make at the end.

I never once had a bad experience with the history department; at every turn, from freshmen year to graduation, it exemplified everything that any university should aspire to be for its students. I would encourage any student looking to pursue the kind of academic experience for which a person attends a liberal arts university like SLU to strongly consider a major in history at St. Lawrence.