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Robert Vega, Director FAC 18 / 2304 Whitis Ave. Stop G6200 78712-1508 • 512-471-7900

Graduate Student Profiles - History

James Jenkins - North American Indian Radicalism


Graduate Program: Ph.D., History, The University of Texas at Austin; Dissertation Topic: North American Indian Radicalism and the Rise of the Global Indigenous Movement

Undergraduate Degree: B.A., History, Northern Arizona University - Flagstaff, AZ

What is the coolest thing about your graduate program?
The coolest thing is the UT history department’s large and talented faculty. In addition, there are literally hundreds of opportunities every year to hear distinguished historians from our department and elsewhere give talks on campus.

What is grad school life like?
Many people imagine grad school life as endless hours of solitary reading and writing. This is not really true, however, because much of grad school involves interacting with other people. Seminars, workshops, conferences and other forums help stimulate the mind in a way that complements work done alone. Beyond that, grad school life is what you make of it. Although I worked for a year before coming to graduate school, my lifestyle has not changed in any dramatic way since I came to UT. School work can take up quite a bit of time. But most people figure out how to prioritize so that they can get everything done and still have a life outside of academia.

What is a typical day in the life of a grad student?
I am finishing my coursework, so I spend much of my time reading for seminars, doing archival research, and writing papers. Many students like to do their work at the library so that they are free from distractions. Some students are surprised when they hear that I do most of my work at home, but I have managed to make a fairly comfortable workspace there. There is a workshop, guest speaker, or academic conference practically every day at UT, so I attend these events when the topics seem interesting or relevant to my own research. In graduate school, there is a tendency to let school take over your life, so most people play some kind of sport or have another release from academics. There is a basketball team, a soccer team, and a softball team in the department. I play saxophone in some local bands, and music is my primary pursuit outside of college.

What are the differences between undergrad and grad school?
The greatest differences are the smaller classes and knowing that in these classes (usually 10 students or fewer) you have to be prepared to be a part of the dialogue that occurs with faculty and classmates.

Is there anything you know now that you wish you knew then?
One thing that I did not know as an undergrad was how important it is to apply for grants. Sometimes universities will offer entering graduate students a funding package, and grant applications do not seem urgent. However, I wish that I had spent time applying for grants before I came to grad school. The grants that you receive become the yardstick by which your progress is measured, and they have value beyond mere finances. If you already have some grants entering grad school, you will find it easier to obtain funding further down the road. Besides, applying for grants is a major part of grad school and an important part of any academic’s career. It never hurts to get a head start.

What are your top 3 tips for students interested in applying to a program like yours?

  1. The most important tip that I could give to somebody applying to a program like mine is to contact scholars that you want to work with. Get in touch with them by e-mail or phone. Talk to them about your research interests and ask them about how they train their graduate students. This way, you can get a much clearer idea about what schools would be good for you. If you are not sure who you would want to work with, read some articles on topics that interest you to find out who the leading scholars are in those fields.
  2. Once you have contacted some historians, you may also want ask to see if you can talk to any of their graduate students. They can give you more information about the department and their advisor.
  3. Finally, when looking at potential schools, I think that finding the best fit is more important than being accepted into a highly prestigious program. Ultimately, you should look for a school that has one or two faculty members with similar interests to your own. This ends up being far more important than other considerations such as library collections or name recognition.

Did you work on a research project as an undergrad?
When I was an undergrad, I did an original research project on the Navajo-Hopi land dispute. I found original documents in Northern Arizona University’s library to write a twenty five page essay. The paper dealt with perceptions of traditional vs. progressive American Indians, which was something of a hot topic within Native American history. I used the essay as my writing sample when I applied to graduate schools, and it definitely gave me an advantage. If possible, I recommend using a paper with archival sources and a strong central argument for your writing sample.

If you wouldn’t have accepted the UT Austin offer, which school was your #2 choice?
My second choice of graduate schools was the University of Minnesota.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
In ten years, I expect to be teaching history at a university and to be playing music gigs on weekends.

Do you have a story, news or achievement you would like to share?
Last semester, I took a research course with Dr. Jonathan Brown on Latin American revolutions. The history department gave me funded a trip to the Center for Southwest Research in Albuquerque, NM. The Center housed Native American activist collections that I used to research the 1980s Miskitu Indian insurgency against the Sandinista government of Nicaragua. I will present some of my findings at the American Society for Ethnohistory conference this fall.

Would you like to share any other stories?
I started college fairly early, at the age of sixteen after my sophomore year in high school. I graduated with a B.A. in history at the age of twenty, and I had vague plans to apply to law school. Instead, I took a teaching job in Bariloche, Argentina, where I taught high school students history, English literature, and music. It was there that I decided to apply to graduate school for history. I felt that teaching would be a suitable career for me, but I wanted to teach older students. Applying from Argentina was somewhat difficult. My biggest obstacle was taking the GRE because I had to travel to Santiago de Chile to find a test center, some 1,000 miles away. The next fall, I began graduate school, and I have just completed my first year. I found that taking a year off from college gave me much more confidence about the direction of my career once I returned to school. It also strengthened my applications because I was spending my year off working in education and learning a foreign language.

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