At the end of April, I had the opportunity to attend the Friday session of the OHMAR 2017 annual conference “Oral History & the City” at Columbia University. Besides the fact that this was a unique conference itself from the astounding presentations to the genderless #RESISTANCE hats taped onto bathroom signs, it was an extra noteworthy day for me as it was the first conference of my academic career.
As it was my first conference, I didn’t present. Instead, I listened and soaked in all of the projects and ideas that were flowing through the campus that day as well as payed attention to how conference days worked. Sitting down in James Memorial Chapel for the first time that morning, I looked through the schedule for the day as well as what else the weekend would have in store (although I would only experience Friday). I remember noticing that the last pages of the program were blank and meant for autographs and thinking that was strange at nine in the morning. I quickly came to appreciate why those pages were there; the renowned presenters and people in attendance blew my mind. I watched Mary Marshall Clark receive the Pogue Award from the front row and saw Linda Shopes from afar on the way to get coffee. It’s easy to say that the fangirling started early in the day. Besides quickly becoming overwhelmed by the people I was surrounded by, I was also forced to battle with time and choose only three sessions to sit in on. At least I could say that I wasn’t alone in that battle; I found many-a-tweet on the #OHMAR2017 feed reading “WHY MUST I DECIDE?”. Why, indeed?
The most impactful session that I sat in on was on Immigration and the City. Immigration stories and those of the Latinx community specifically are what I love to work with. I find them to show raw humanity; all of the struggle and ugly as well as the triumph and beauty that comes in life out of other interview projects that I’ve listened to. I heard a song put together by 1001 Voices Symphony which is a choir consisting of new and undocumented immigrants. It was one of the most beautiful things I have ever heard; 1001 Voices utilized music to portray both their diversity by singing in each of their different languages as well as their unity as a choir and community. It was astounding.
As a high school student who chose to study history as an undergrad, I wasn’t given the chance to understand that history is more than “great white men” who write dry monographs until the last couple months. Now I see the past in a totally different light; there are just as many perspectives of a story as there are ways to record and tell those thoughts. I have quickly fallen in love with oral history as a method of portraying those perspectives and especially life histories. There is nothing more powerful, in my opinion, than a personal story. I am so glad that I both found OHMAR and went to this conference, but also that I was able to meet all of the people that also attended. For the first time as an academic I felt that I was surrounded by people who felt the same way as I did about the value of the individual story in the recording of the past. I can easily say that I left that day full of inspiration for my own projects and confidence that there is always someone else out there who is going to care about what I have to say. Academia has a tendency to be a lonely place to find one’s self. OHMAR gave me an entire conference of people to connect with. I cannot wait to go again. I’ll be waiting (not so) patiently for #OHMAR2018.
Nicole Strunk is an undergraduate at West Chester University and an aspiring public historian. You can find her on twitter @tu_nicolitaa