Students explore working at Wake Forest

Senior Rebecca Hinson interviews academic advisor Tiffany Waddell.

Senior Rebecca Hinson interviews academic advisor Tiffany Waddell.

Students in Michele Gillespie’s history class took a closer look at the work of Wake Forest staff and faculty this semester as part of their study of the history of work in America.

For an oral-history project called “Wake at Work,” students interviewed about 20 staff members and professors about their backgrounds and jobs and how their jobs influenced their perception of the American dream. Transcripts of the interviews are now available on the Z. Smith Reynolds Library website. Audio recordings of many of the interviews are also available at the same website.

Using the University as an example of the contemporary workplace exposed students to a variety of jobs before they began their journey back to colonial days to trace how work — individually and collectively — has shaped American history and expectations about the American Dream today, Gillespie said.

“I wanted students to think about the diversity of work experiences in the U.S. today,” said Gillespie, the Kahle Associate Professor of History. “Wake Forest does not begin to approximate the full diversity of work in the world, but it does offer a good representation.”

The students in her class, America at Work, spent the semester studying how what people do has shaped the nation’s history, from the colonial era through the slave economy and Reconstruction; from the Great Depression to the post-war business boom; and from the rise and decline of manufacturing to the transition to the service economy. The class also looked at how government policies and economic changes created greater opportunities for some people and fewer opportunities for others.

For the oral-history project, students asked staff members and professors about their family background and how that influenced what they wanted to be when they grew up; how they chose their particular occupation and why they came to work at Wake Forest; what they do and what they like about their job; and their hopes for the future for themselves and their children. Angela Culler, interim assistant vice president for Human Resources, met with the class twice to talk about working at Wake Forest.

Gillespie said the project had not only an academic component, but also a practical one of exposing students to the wide variety of jobs that staff members perform every day to make their education possible. “Students were blown away by the commitment of people who did work so seemingly removed from the welfare of students and the centrality of the educational mission at Wake Forest,” she said. “They learned about departments and the work performed in them that they had never imagined were integral to a university. They were surprised at the diversity of experiences, educations, ideas and people they encountered as a whole.”

Ellie Poole, a senior history major from Durham, N.C., said most students don’t know much about the work of staff members. She said she enjoyed learning more about her interview subject, Hansford Johnson, director of the mentorship program from the Schools of Business. Johnson, a native of Liberia, grew up in Minneapolis and Atlanta, graduated from Middle Tennessee State College and Fuller Theological Seminary, and worked with first-generation college students at the University of South Florida before coming to Wake Forest in 2008.

“I was surprised that we had someone working at Wake who, through his job here, feels like he is living the American Dream,” Poole said. “That certainly was not the case for everyone’s interviewees, but in my interview, the passion and drive behind Mr. Johnson’s work stems from the community he has found here as well as the opportunities for intellectual growth and work mentorship.”

Read and listen to the interviews:

— By Kerry M. King (’85), Office of Communications and External Relations