UMN program hopes grant will support diverse students, communities

The Heritage Studies and Public History graduate program was recently awarded $350,000 from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Katrina Pross

A University of Minnesota graduate program that aims to promote diversity in careers like historic preservation will use a $350,000 grant to support its students with paid internships and scholarships.

The University’s Heritage Studies and Public History program was created last fall to generate more diversity and community engagement in heritage and public history careers, including historical archeology and nonprofit work. Professors hope this grant will help them continue with direct financial support for students.

“Heritage and public history career positions are, and have long been, predominantly held by white upper-middle class people. The result of that, not surprisingly, is that the history is not representative of American history,” said program co-founder and associate professor Greg Donofrio.

The program is a collaboration between the College of Liberal Arts, the College of Design and the Minnesota Historical Society, and was awarded the grant by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation late last month. Its 19 students come from varying ethnic backgrounds, which members say is important for diversifying their career fields.

Even though Minnesota and the U.S. as a whole is growing more diverse, careers relating to heritage are still mostly filled by white people, Donofrio said. Most of these positions are not highly paid, so only wealthy people that can pay for an expensive education and then move to a low-wage job — predominantly Caucasian people — can hold these positions, he said.

“If we continue to expect our graduate students to pay the lion’s share of their own tuition, we are only going to get a fairly homogenized group of students,” Donofrio said.

Program faculty hope to use the grant money to financially support their students who come from more diverse and varied racial backgrounds through paid internships and summer fellowships, which will support them as they enter a low-paying job field, said public history professor Kevin Murphy.

The grant will also help the program recruit new students by offering more financial packages to students who otherwise couldn’t afford to attend the program, said Minnesota Historical Society’s Chief Inclusion Officer Chris Taylor.

People involved in the program say they’re working to change people’s perspectives on heritage and public history. 

“Even students who are not diverse or come from a dominant culture are going to learn how to practice new ways that are culturally responsive and promote inclusion within the field,” Taylor said. 

The program is partnered with the Minnesota Historical Society, as students in the program will often work for similar institutions after they obtain their degree, Taylor said. This way, the two institutions can also combine training, education and expertise, he said.

With the grant, members of the program hope to expand on these existing partnerships with community groups and form new ones.

The students will work with organizations that encourage diversity and heritage like the Somali Museum of Minnesota, the Hennepin History Museum and the Dakota communities, Murphy said.

“Through this program, we are not working for communities, but rather with them,” Donofrio said. 

By using community ties and creating a more diverse and culturally-aware field, the program hopes to prepare students for life in public history careers after college. 

“We are a graduate program that is oriented towards educating people who will transform and innovate in the fields of public history in the future, and we are training people to fill new positions that do not exist yet and redefine the field,” Murphy said.