American Studies Majors Turn Passions to Professions

If graduates of the program are any indication, the Department of American Studies at UC Davis is a good place to find one’s place in the world. The American studies major provides critical and creative perspectives, tools that can be used in many areas, an introduction to wide-ranging topics, and ways to meld academics, career and personal passion.

“If you teach those core skills, it carries over to everything,” said Professor Julie Sze.

A few of the ways graduates of the American studies programs have made the world better:

“Among the American studies program graduates I keep in touch with are lawyers, clinical psychologists, teachers from elementary to college, people in business, writers, artists/photographers, journalists, photojournalists, nonprofit workers and more,” said Jay Mechling, a professor emeritus who taught in the program for 35 years.

The program is “explicitly interdisciplinary,” Sze said. That is reflected in faculty expertise: gender, race, film, disabilities, food, history, the environment, design and literature. Several have joint appointments: one in African and African American studies, another with the Department of Design, and still another in Food Science and Technology.

Making connections

The program isn’t about specific subjects; its focus is on developing the skills to tie many subjects together creatively.

“It’s not walking down an aisle and throwing different items in the cart,” said Charlotte Biltekoff, department chair. “It’s about making connections, often among things that may not seem connected.”

Those connections can bring together immigration and autobiography, environment and race, gender and literature.

“We have a coherent curriculum that provides a good grounding in developing your curiosity, thinking critically and writing clearly,” said Professor Caren Kaplan. “Any concern or issue you deeply care about you can focus on.”

American studies is an eye-opening and mind-expanding experience for many students.

“We’re asking most students to do something that’s completely different for them,” Sze said. “It’s not about right answers or spitting back information. For many students, it’s a transformative experience and the things they come up with are amazing.”

Now in its 50th year, the UC Davis American studies program is one of the oldest in the nation.

Finding the right academic home

Students uncertain about what to study discovered almost by accident that American studies was the right place for them to bring together diverse interests. The program gave them the research tools, close interaction with faculty, and compelling coursework.

Emily Smith Beitiks ’05

Emily Smith Beitiks
Emily Smith Beitiks

“I needed a class and stumbled upon Science and Technology in American Culture,” said Emily Smith Beitiks, associate director of Paul K. Longmore Institute on Disability at San Francisco State University. “I had no idea what American studies was, but I was immediately blown away by the quality of the classes and teaching. I don’t think I took a single American studies class I didn’t like.”

She and others also found the small size of the department to be a major attraction and benefit.

“What I got was a small, liberal arts school education inside this large university,” Beitiks said.

Anna Oh ’14, B.A., American Studies, Cinema and Digital Media

Anna Oh
Anna Oh

Anna Oh came to American studies in a similar manner and quickly saw how the program could bright let her meld personal experience with research.

“It sparked all these questions in me about American identity and my own personal identity,” said Oh, whose family moved from South Korea to the San Francisco Bay Area when she was 5. Her thesis project, a short film titled “Am I American?” explored her experience of feeling American, but not legally being an American. Her family’s swearing-in ceremony as citizens took place while she was at UC Davis and is part of the film.

After graduation she made a documentary, “Halmoni,” about immigration activist Ju Hong, which has been shown at several film festivals. She is a product manager for Kanopy, a movie streaming service for libraries and educational institutions.

“American studies allowed me to dig into issues I was interested in a creative way, to take a look at material presented in coursework and then take a step back and approach it in my own way,” she said.

Holistic problem solving

Yeni Munoz ‘12

Yeni Munoz
Yeni Munoz

American studies gave Yeni Munoz a holistic view for her city planning jobs in Oakland and East Palo Alto. Ethnically diverse East Palo Alto is in the middle of Silicon Valley but has few stores, an inadequate water system, contaminated land, and rising real estate prices. American studies gave her an understanding of how such issues arose, which allowed her to better deal with them.

In East Palo Alto she collaborated on a school for low-income pre-school students founded by Priscilla Chan and her husband, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg; worked to bring an office building to town; helped with the development of a shopping center; and updated the city bike plan.

“My major encouraged me to be more aware of cultural, environmental and gender issues,” said Munoz. “It allows me to look at one problem from different perspectives. For me to have a say and an impact in a community is a big thing.”

Exploring interests through research

American studies students recently gave presentations about their research to provide a sense of topics that can be explored through the program. Here are a few examples:

Angela Kim, blepharoplasty

Angela Kim, a fourth-year student double majoring in Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies, is researching something she has personal experience with — blepharoplasty (double eyelid surgery). In the surgery, the eyelid is given a double fold and makes the eyes wider. It is often seen as a way to make Asian women look more “Western.”
Like most of the women in her family and many Korean and Korean-American women, she had the surgery. It is a widely accepted practice with little stigma in South Korea or among Korean Americans.

“In Korea, ads for it are everywhere — on subways, buses, and on every building,” Kim said. “You constantly see people on the street with bandages on their faces.”

The surgery originated among Korean women who married American servicemen they met during the Korean War.

“It was a way for them to look more like white women, fit in, and prove they were pliable,” Kim said. She sees it ultimately as a way “millions of Korean women’s faces have been colonialized.”

American studies gave Kim the tools and confidence to pursue the project.

“The classes push the boundaries of the knowledge you already come into the classroom with,” she said. “I never thought that I could produce my own research, but the classes break down the process of researching well. Every professor has been immensely supportive and they are always willing to help.”

Her research is continuing and she has been accepted to two graduate programs in American studies.

“I am dedicated to and passionate about American studies, so I'd like to be in the field and eventually create a career out of it,” she said.

Brennan Baraban, athletics and academics for college athletes

Brennan Baraban, graduating in the spring (after three years and with minors in economics and statistics), grew up playing and watching sports. Looking for a major that aligned with his interests, he discovered American studies.

“It looked like a major where I could bring my interests in history, English and writing, and sports together,” said Baraban, who grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area.

His senior thesis examines what he calls the “pseudo-separation” of athletics and academics for college athletes.

“Student athletes are given unrealistic expectations,” he said. “They train, practice, play games, travel for games, and have to be a full-time student as well. They don’t really get a break because seasonal sports are no longer seasonal — they go on all year. It’s treated like a hobby and it’s not.”

Nadia Alves, environment with justice

Nadia Alves, who will graduate next year, researched the 2015 release of toxic waste water from the Gold King Mine in Colorado that affected Native Americans and their land and water. She found there was little documentation on the impact of the spill, and documents about it had been redacted or revised. A monitoring plan was put in place, but only for a year – not enough time to gauge long-term effects, Alves said.

“It makes these communities invisible,” she said.

Alves entered UC Davis as a science student because of her long-standing interest in the natural world, but found that American studies allowed her to better combine her interest in the environment with justice.

“I could create my own emphasis and the department was so open and inviting,” she said.  “It let me discover what I really want to be doing. It has completely changed the way I look at everything.”

Jeffrey Day is a content strategist for the College of Letters and Science



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