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William D. Bryan

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William D. Bryan

One of the reasons I decided to come to Penn State for my graduate training was the George and Ann Richards Civil War Era Center. A lot of universities provide funding for outside speakers and graduate student research, but the Richards Center really is unique in making public programming and graduate training part of its core mission. It links graduate students with the wonderful faculty at Penn State and with historians from other institutions, and truly creates an intellectual community of scholars dedicated to studying the nineteenth-century United States.

As a graduate student studying environmental history I benefitted from this community (and still do!). The Civil War Era workshops, Brose lecture series, graduate student conferences, and emerging scholar workshops all provided an opportunity to hear about cutting-edge research on the nineteenth century. The Richards Center made sure that graduate students had opportunities to interact with each speaker through planned dinners, seminars, or coffee hours, and these moments gave me an opportunity to get to know other scholars in my field. The Center also provided generous support for my dissertation research and funded travel to conferences across the United States where I fleshed out my dissertation topic. This research support allowed me to publish two peer-reviewed articles in well-regarded journals as a graduate student. The Richards Center also funded my two-year stint working as the editorial assistant for The Journal of the Civil War Era, which provided me with a wonderful introduction to the world of scholarly publishing. My first opportunity to present my research to a public audience was at a Richards Center initiative in Charleston, South Carolina. Working with faculty affiliated with the Center helped me frame my work for the public, and this experience recently came in handy as I worked with Emory University and the Georgia Humanities Council to develop a seminar series on John Muir for the Atlanta public. In 2013, the Center even sponsored a Civil War era workshop that brought in two senior scholars in my field (Elliott West and James C. Cobb) to read my full dissertation and provide feedback during a day-long seminar. This helped me to establish ties with scholars outside of Penn State and gave me an opportunity to hone the conclusions of my work even before my dissertation defense. My dissertation was subsequently selected to receive Penn State’s highest dissertation award and was one of only three national finalists for all arts and humanities disciplines for the Council of Graduate Schools/ProQuest Distinguished Dissertation Award—largely because this seminar gave me such a unique opportunity to hone my work in consultation with senior scholars in my field.

In short, the Richards Center provided support at crucial moments of my graduate studies, helped me to flesh out and later hone my dissertation, and connected me with a community of scholars at Penn State and across the nation working on the history of the Civil War era. All of this has played a key role in my development as a scholar, and I am grateful to have had this unique opportunity as a graduate student.