Bringing History to Life

Olivia Wertz presenting

English grad Olivia Wertz presenting her research on the Robbins House at Penn State Altoona.

Credit: Penn State

Research Spotlight

Olivia Wertz ‘17: English graduate

I took multiple classes with Dr. Sandra Petrulionis, professor of English and American studies, so she was very familiar with my work ethic and academic interests. She approached me about the opportunity to do research with her, and I began working on the project my junior year.

The research included examining and transcribing approximately 100 manuscript letters written by little-known nineteenth-century African American activist and educator Ellen Garrison Jackson, a native of Concord, Massachusetts. Through this research, I learned the principles of scholarly editing, including how to create a diplomatic transcription, as well as the fundamental concerns of textual scholarship. These transcriptions of Jackson's letters are now on public display in the exhibits at The Robbins House Center for African American history in Concord.

This research allowed me to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the intersectionality of race, gender, and class. The research focused on the life and career of Jackson. Because she lived during the 1800s, we, as researchers, got a firsthand look at how her actions contributed to many historical movements and progressions, including freedmen's schools and Jackson's personal encounters with racism. This understanding directly related to many of the history, sociology, and literature classes I took while at Penn State Altoona.

I hope to attend graduate school and complete a master's degree in English literature. Research is a vital part of graduate studies in this field, so to have completed such an interesting and historical research project at the undergraduate level truly enhanced my résumé.

I believe students should seek out research opportunities! If they are interested in a specific field of study, I encourage them to approach faculty about research opportunities. It is never too early to inquire about working with faculty on their research projects.  While I finished my research with Dr. Petrulionis at the end of my junior year, I gave presentations on it to faculty, students, and even parents throughout my senior year at Penn State Altoona.

This project gives me an overwhelming sense of pride. My work has contributed to an actual museum: People visit The Robbins House and see this history come to life through the exhibit dedicated to Ellen Garrison Jackson.

Comments by Sandy Petrulionis

Working with Penn State's most ambitious students, like Olivia Wertz, on my research projects is one of the best things about my job. Students are often surprised to learn the kind of research that English and History professors conduct. My own projects usually involve reviewing unpublished manuscripts of both well-known 19th-century authors such as Henry Thoreau and little known figures like Mary Moody Emerson and Ellen Garrison Jackson. Introducing Olivia to the principles of transcribing unpublished manuscripts like letters and diaries—and having her discover the thrill of the buried stories within such archival documents—is a privilege. Her work with the letters of Ellen Garrison Jackson made a valuable contribution to the Robbins House's ongoing efforts to educate the general public, including many school students, about Jackson's commitment as a teacher of freed people as well as her own activism for civil rights, after the Civil War had ended.