Elizabeth Klein ’23 confesses she had “never really been a student of history” before coming to Hollins. “My plans focused on majoring in English, going to grad school, and then becoming a book editor,” she remembers. She enjoyed her English classes at Hollins, but during the spring semester of her first year, she took a class with Associate Professor of History Rachel Nuñez that convinced her to reconsider what she wanted to engage in academically as an undergraduate.
“It ended up being one of the most amazing classes that I’ve ever been in. It changed the way I thought about reading and critical thinking. Analyzing primary historical sources was so gratifying because they’re accounts of real people and events. I couldn’t stop thinking about that class after it was over, and a year later I changed my major to history.” With a number of Spanish classes also under her belt, she decided to make the language her second major.
At first, Klein’s approach to being a history student was to simply absorb as much as she could. “I was just learning what history was and what the study of it looked like. I took a lot of different classes in many different subjects.” But in the fall of her junior year, the seminar Antebellum United States, taught by Ruth Alden Doan Assistant Professor of History Christopher Florio, brought particular interests into focus for her. “I wrote a paper about Jewish Americans in the 19th century, and from that sprang a desire to know what Jewish people during that time were doing, what they were talking about, and what was important to them.”
Klein cites Florio as “an important source of encouragement for my interest in history. While working on my paper for his Antebellum United States history class, he arranged for me to do research on primary sources at the Beth Ahabah Museum and Archives and the Library of Virginia, where I got to look at dozens of firsthand accounts of Jewish life in the Antebellum United States. I ended up using several in my final paper.”
While giving her valuable insight into Jewish American history, Klein’s takeaways from researching and writing the paper also included a lot of unresolved questions. “In that paper I talked about the ways in which Jewish people formed relationships with Christians that sometimes were advantageous to them. But why did so many Christians also seek to form relationships with Jewish people? What did they see as advantageous about these relationships? I began thinking about how the interests of both Jewish people and Christians might have intersected or overlapped during the 19th century.”
Klein says writing that paper “was an incredible experience and definitely the catalyst for the research I’ve done this year for my senior honors thesis,” which explores Jewish participation in 19th century westward expansion in the United States. “We don’t think about Jewish people living on the frontier, and getting to delve into that area of history where many don’t expect to see Jewish people was really interesting,” she says. “There’s so much more to talk about than what is in history textbooks.”
Along with examining sources that detailed different Jewish communities in the West, Klein drew upon firsthand accounts of Jewish pioneers. She also found articles published in Jewish newspapers that highlighted opportunities for Jewish people to migrate West and commended those who were leading the way. “Just as important as Jewish people actually going West and participating in this colonization was the way that Jewish communities in the East interpreted their stories. They saw those pioneers as their representatives, and it was interesting to see how they envisioned what they wanted that participation to mean for Jewish people in America.”
Additionally, Klein was intrigued by the consequences of Jewish migration. “I don’t think it’s possible to look at Westward colonization without realizing this was an endeavor to entrench the supremacy of Christian whiteness throughout the continent. So, my research touches upon the ways in which Jewish people were involved in those processes.”
Klein’s senior honors thesis was recognized this spring with the Wyndham Robertson Library’s Undergraduate Research Award in the Junior/Senior category. At this year’s Honors Convocation, she received the Mary Williamson Award for the best study submitted in the field of humanities. She has also delivered her findings at 2023 Virginia Regional Phi Alpha Theta (National History Honor Society) Conference, held last month at the University of Lynchburg, and at the Hollins Student Performance and Academic Research Conference (SPARC), which gives undergraduates the opportunity to present academic research or creative work to the larger campus community.
In her undergraduate career, Klein complemented her research with two history-related internships. The first was sponsored by the Roanoke Valley Preservation Foundation and involved working on the Gainsboro History Project, a digital initiative documenting the community that was the commercial and social center of African American life and history in Roanoke and was deeply impacted by urban renewal and development. The internship was organized by Megan Mizak ’03, manager of the Roanoke Public Library’s Gainsboro Branch. “Another Hollins intern and I were based at the Gainsboro Branch and had access to their archives. Using those sources, we built webpages and developed content.” At the end of the January Short Term internship, Klein and her fellow intern had produced dozens of pages of content that were subsequently published online that spring. “It was incredibly rewarding and one of my favorite things I’ve done at Hollins.”
During another January Short Term, Klein interned with Preservation Virginia (PV) under the organization’s education manager, Meika Downey ’17. “I was writing post-field trip activities for students from different grade levels who visited the Cape Henry Lighthouse, one of PV’s six historic sites,” she explains. Even though she was assigned to a specific location, Klein says Downey ensured that she got to tour all the PV sites as well as the Library of Virginia and many museums. “She wanted the internship to be an opportunity to do as much as we possibly could in areas in which we were interested. We learned the ins and outs of historical interpretation and museum work. She wanted us to get the most out of our month there.”
A recent inductee into the Phi Beta Kappa honor society, Klein believes she has “spent the best part of my life” at Hollins. “I’ve definitely come into my own as a person here. The community is so supportive. I’ve felt like I belonged at Hollins and people wanted me to be my best self.”
Above all, Klein says she has found a comfort level in taking risks. “I had people here who were going to look out for me – my professors, my friends, and our alumnae/i. I’ve been able to trust the Hollins community and the network that I’ve built here so that I can pursue this interest of mine. I’m truly grateful to Professor Florio for this opportunity and countless others as I’ve pursued my passion for studying Jewish-American history.”
Bolstered by that confidence, Klein is planning to take a gap year following graduation to help her decide which field of study she’d like to pursue. “All roads lead to grad school, but do I want to become a library archivist, or do I want to engage in historical research? I think there’s so much that I could do. My professors encouraged me to take that time to work in both areas and get an idea of what that could be.”