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Northwestern University

Alumni Reflect on the Value of a History Degree

It turns out you can do a lot with a history degree.

On May 7, Northwestern’s Department of History invited three alumni to talk to students about how their history degrees have influenced their careers.

One panelist, Kavitha Chekuru ‘06, is now a field producer at Al Jazeera English, where she produces long-form documentaries. Chekuru said she was able to secure a position at Al Jazeera English by marketing her ability to do intensive research and to establish facts from multiple sources, skills she has drawn on often while reporting on foreign issues. Chekuru also said she feels she has an advantage over other journalists due to her academic background and knowledge about the Americas.

“You can’t report on what’s happening in [Columbia] without understanding the causes (of) war, and the consequences,” Chekuru said.

Chekuru advised students to take advantage of their time with professors at Northwestern, adding that the faculty are “walking encyclopedias, with such a wide range of facts and experiences.”

A Passion for Learning

Delida Costin '91, another panelist and general counsel at Pandora, said her experiences at Northwestern sparked a passion for learning about historical episodes such as the Salem witch trials. She was so fascinated by the subject that when she was in law school, she taught a class to small children on topics that ranged from The Crucible to the Vietnam War. That teaching experience, she said, eventually led to her job at a large corporate law firm.

The final panelist was Jeff Mays '74, a former five-term state representative of Illinois. Mays said his time as a history student at Northwestern enabled him to run a convincing campaign for the Illinois legislative seat.

“I could explain the history of unemployment insurance and minimum wage and prevailing wage because I’d studied it, and I knew it.” Mays said.

Mays, now the president of the Illinois Business Roundtable, said he’s now ready to change career paths. However, he has enough faith in what he learned at Northwestern as a history major to know he’ll be OK.

“I’ll figure it out. Because that’s what liberal art majors do, right?” Mays said. “We figure things out.”

Many Paths

Associate Professor Michael Allen, who coordinated the event, said the idea for the panel arose when he realized that several of his history students had decided to major in economics because they thought it would open more doors in the job market. Allen organized the event along with two history students, Lindsay Jagla ‘15 and Noah Steimel ‘14, to dispel the fears current history students might have for their future.      

Jagla said that the panel helped her focus on the valuable skills she’s gained through studying history — writing, critical analysis and communication, to name a few.

“We wanted to show the value of a history degree and the many paths that past history majors at Northwestern have taken that may not be typical paths for a history major,” Jagla said.

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