By Rebecca Cuddihy
Towards the end of my undergraduate history degree at Strathclyde University, Glasgow, I thought I had my next year planned. I had already gained my Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) qualification and accepted a teaching position at a school in China. However, attending a last-minute career lecture would change my life forever, and just a few months later I found myself travelling from Scotland to Mount Pleasant ready to start a master’s degree at Central Michigan University.
The main thing which attracted me to this amazing opportunity was the graduate teaching assistant position which went hand-in-hand with my master’s program. While taking my own classes, the structure of which was a huge culture shock to me itself, I also taught HST101, Western Civilization from the Bronze Age – 1700 under the supervision of history department chair Dr. Gregory Smith. Having no teaching experience whatsoever, I was thrown into the deep end. Saying that, I wouldn’t have done it any other way. Being a graduate assistant was a great experience, one which I definitely miss. At the time, writing your own essays, planning each lesson, and grading your students’ work is stressful and time-consuming and sometimes makes you want to tear your hair out (we’ve all been there). But there is a huge feeling of achievement when you think about the knowledge and skills you’ve helped pass on to your students. I had the independence in my seminar groups to develop my own teaching style, and attending weekly lectures with students meant we were on the journey together. The position also came with many challenges. Navigating the American education system was a shock to me, since in Scotland we don’t follow a general education program in university, and there are no compulsory classes (e.g. writing intensive). I felt that getting the students motivated and excited about the class could be difficult, as many students didn’t immediately see the benefit of a writing intensive class because it wasn’t related to their major (in an obvious way). However, I think my accent alone managed to capture attention of my students throughout the year. They definitely taught me as much as I taught them! I knew the next year would have a lot to live up to.
Although I worked with some fantastic professors and fellow grad students and made friends for life, I felt that pursuing a PhD just wasn’t for me. I loved the teaching aspect of my time at CMU, but I didn’t enjoy being in the classroom as a student as much. Thankfully, working with students from all over the world created a fantastic support network and is definitely one of the department’s strengths, particularly for those like me who had come from a different country.
Fast forward a move to the Metro Detroit area, a marriage and some serious job searching, I now work at the Detroit Historical Museum in Midtown Detroit! Although my role is mainly focused on visitor services, the knowledge and skills I’ve gained from this is invaluable. Not only have I learned about the turbulent history of Detroit and its gradual comeback, I’ve been able to learn just how a museum actually functions and what the key roles and responsibilities are. I see how the museum engages with the community through educational tours, film festivals, speakers, and maintaining relevant exhibits around Detroit’s history, as well as meeting individuals who have lived through Detroit’s past. It really is enlightening learning about Detroit’s history on a daily basis and actually seeing how past events have affected the city to this day.
I hope my journey will inspire current and future students that a history degree can take you to so many places! My next adventure will be down in Georgia, where for the next five months I’ll be working with the Augusta Museum of History in their collections department. I will be forever grateful for my time at CMU and to the faculty and students I worked with and taught. Who knows where my degree will take me next!
Rebecca Cuddihy graduated from Central Michigan University with a Master of Arts in History in 2017 and currently works at the Detroit Historical Museum. She is aiming to visit as many states as possible before returning to Scotland next year. She has also recently started a blog on her time in the USA so far: https://rebeccanormanusalife.wordpress.com/. You can follow her on twitter @rebeccacud92.