Public History Students Inspired By Angel Island Experience

Subscribe to RSS Feed

In researching and producing “The Angel Island Experience” for presentation in Guzman Lecture Hall on December 2, Dominican University of California history students Madison Huckaby ’23 and Solena Ornelas ’23 were not only well-informed but also truly inspired.

“I realize how important it is to have every single voice be a part of the process of telling a story,” says Solena, a double major in political science and music. “History is more authentic once we incorporate voices from everyone.”

The Angel Island Experience was a historical simulation created and presented by students in Dr. Jordan Lieser’s public history course. This fall semester they have learned about immigration history in the United States and 20th century world affairs. Now they will connect these lessons to an important local history focusing on immigrants from 82 countries who, from 1910 to 1940, were processed through Angel Island, often deemed the West Coast equivalent of Ellis Island.

“I believe that students who take Public History at Dominican get three particularly tangible benefits,” says Dr. Lieser, chair of the history department in the School of Liberal Arts and Education.

“One, students get to do history. Too often history classes are filled exclusively with passive experiences. This is not the case at Dominican. Our students learn how both history and public history are made within the discipline and then get to go through the process themselves. Two, students are better prepared for the workplace, including project management, leadership, and knowledge about a growing job market within the field of Public History. And three, students, if they have not already, come to appreciate the vital place history holds in society, hopefully understanding the famous Faulkner quote from Requiem for a Nun, `The past is never dead. It's not even the past.’”|

The project was divided into four committees – Audio/Video Production, Education, Simulation, and Website Development – and includes lesson plans. It was completed in partnership with California State Parks and the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation and by researching material through the National Archives’ San Francisco office.

Not only are the Dominican students learning new history, but they also are teaching it. It was offered to approximately 50 fourth and fifth grade students from Ross Valley Charter School who visited the Dominican campus and saw and heard the unique presentation in Guzman Lecture Hall on December 2. The general public was invited as well.

“They have a great opportunity that not a lot of students get in a typical history lesson,” says Madison, a double major in biochemistry and history. “These students will experience history through a different lens. With this presentation, it feels like you are actually visualizing individual people. You are visualizing emotions.”

In fact, the presentation was promoted as an invitation to “Feel the History.” Madison, who graduated from Whitney High School in Rocklin, had never visited Angel Island until this year. She said she was never taught about its immigration history in school, yet she gained a sense of it shortly after arriving at the immigration station.

“I was a bit overwhelmed when we reached the site because it seems to have its own emotion to it,” Madison says. “I just felt emotion radiating off the island itself. Like when you walk into the barracks you could almost feel that the quarantined people were here. You feel like there was a presence. It was very strong.”

So was the students’ desire to learn about it.

“A lot of times as a history student you are conditioned to just take in the information that’s already been studied and researched, but this course was particularly challenging for me because I had to go outside of that box and understand that I am the researcher and I’m uncovering new information,” says Solena, who graduated from Mesa Ridge High School in Colorado Springs, CO. “You can’t just go to Google to ask `Where was this person at this time?’ because you won’t find the answer. You’re finding that information. yourself. You are putting all these sources together in order to tell a story. You have a big responsibility because the story that you are telling has the capacity to influence how other people think.”

Or, in other words says Madison “You feel like a detective.”

Madison, who is interested in eastern Asian history, enjoys linguistics and the culture behind languages. When she first visited the immigration site on Angel Island, she was curious to see if there any Chinese or Korean readings. Her role in The Angel Island Experience project is “education” and she has implemented poetry into her presentation.

“We’re not just visualizing people and what they must have gone through, we can literally feel emotions through poetry and that’s really powerful for me,” Madison says. “This was amazing, I wish we had that kind of learning growing up.”

Solena’s role is incorporating audio and visuals into the presentation.

 “For me, it was important to work on the audio/visual project because showcasing history by utilizing multimedia makes history more accessible to wider audience, who might not be able to engage with traditional mediums that historical stories are told through,” Solena says. “History using multimedia can also be more engaging, specifically for younger audiences.”

In fact, when Solena made a return trip to Angel Island for more filming, she ran into a third-grade class on a field trip. Solena asked the class teacher if she could interview her for Dominican’s production, but the teacher declined, explaining that she did not feel she was educated enough about the island’s immigration history.

For Solena, this validated her and her fellow history students at Dominican in their efforts to research history inside and out and to pass it onto future generations.

“This project showcases the understanding that history isn’t something that we studied and then stopped. It leads up to where we are. We are still in history,” Solena says. “That’s what Angel Island shows. Yes, there were Chinese exclusion laws that were bad, but those laws have led up to where we are now, and they have impact now.”

The Angel Island Experience is for all to experience, not just for elementary school students. The goal is to make history more accessible to all younger students.

“I appreciate Dominican and Jordan for that because I didn’t have that growing up,” Madison says. “It’s amazing to see this other side of history that we never got to learn about. It’s the same history and the same events. But we only got to see one narrative. We only got to see the winners of history and their opinions. Now I am feeling like I am learning history all over again.”

Photo of Dr. Jordan Lieser and some of his Public History class students this semester on Angel Island.


You May Also Like