Humanities Insights from a NEH Intern: Part 3

by Eleesha Blackwell

Eleesha at the U.S. Presidential Inaugural Parade this past January.

Eleesha at the U.S. Presidential Inaugural Parade this past January.

As my time as an intern at the National Endowment for the Humanities comes to a close, I realize I made a fantastic decision in applying here.  When the NEH internship announcement came to my inbox, I had fulfilled the internship requirement for my degree and already had a full course load.  But as I read the internship description, I remember thinking that I had always imagined that I might end up at the NEH someday—and maybe that time was now.  So despite having a full schedule and graduation requirements that I needed to complete, I decided to work at NEH. I know now that it’s a wonderful institution, so I couldn’t be happier about my decision.

I had already done six internships when I came to NEH. In my previous internships I repaired Roman ceramics in Portugal, wrote exhibition text for a museum in Houston, and helped rehouse hundreds of historic objects at the National Air and Space Museum.  I had no idea what to expect when I began work at NEH. All I knew was that for the first time I wouldn’t be handling objects in a museum. Instead I would be assisting in making a big impact on museums and other humanities institutions, which was really exciting.

On my first day at the NEH each of the interns was tasked with a work plan designed to take advantage of our previous experience and skills, so as to help achieve the goal of the office. I was going to help the Office of Congressional Affairs by developing a more effective outreach to Congress and congressional staff. This was perfect for me, as I had previous experience in outreach and recruiting for my university. When I started, I was given a short outline of what the office was currently doing and how a typical meeting with congressional staff went. I immediately understood that the meetings with congressional staff would be short. I also realized that the reading materials we handed out would probably be what would stick—plus it would give us something to reference during meetings. So I took it upon myself to design and create engaging and informative handouts. I’m proud of the handouts that I created, such as fact sheets, informational handouts, and program-specific highlights. Best of all, I got to use my creativity and my design skills.

In addition to working on strategy in the office, I also met with members of Congress, whom I introduced to the NEH. In the meetings I highlighted one of our newer programs: a series of four films about civil rights called Created Equal. Capitol Hill was a completely different environment for me, but I caught on quick.  By the last few meetings, my quick description of NEH (my “elevator pitch”) seemed almost second nature. I was able to ad lib and add facts about interesting programs I had heard about. I also felt comfortable praising an organization I had grown to truly care about.

Another great part of the internship was getting to meet with the various program offices within the agency. As a Museum Studies graduate student, I had heard about the NEH in almost all of my classes and had even written two mock grant proposals. What I didn’t know was how the NEH works, how it gets its federal money, the effort that program officers put into their work, and the vast impact the agency makes on institutions across America. During lunches I attended, program officers and assistants would talk about the great things each of their divisions was doing—in particular the great work their grants were doing for the nation. I was amazed to hear about the educational programs that were being hosted by Ivy League schools, community colleges and tribal colleges. I was enamored with the work of the Office of Digital Humanities, whose grants have produced amazing apps (several of which I’ve downloaded). I also came to love the great work done by the Division of Preservation and Access. Each meeting made me more passionate about the field and more excited to share what I had learned with anyone who would listen.

As much as I enjoyed meeting with congressional staff and developing strategy, all my time wasn’t spent behind a desk—there was a ton of fun things, too! The other interns and the NEH staff I worked with were absolutely fantastic, and we often found ourselves laughing together in the office. Courtney, our director, was a very supportive boss who gave me great advice when I got some bad news while waiting to hear from schools to which I’d applied for my second masters. I also attended some interesting briefings at the Capitol and the Executive Office Building, was within arm’s reach of Martin Scorsese at the 42nd Jefferson Lecture, and was fortunate enough to meet some of the fantastic women who made up the panel at the screening of the NEH-funded film, No Job for a Woman: The Women Who Fought to Report WWII.

Had you told me a year ago that I would find myself awake at 2 AM on a weeknight watching a film called The Dust Bowl about America’s worst man-made ecological disaster, I would not have believed you. But in fact, you would’ve been right.  During my time as an intern, I grew to love everything the NEH stands for and works to promote. I now find myself in constant awe of the great work that NEH grants produce— even the films that air on PBS in the early morning hours.

Eleesha Blackwell (as of today!) has a MA in Museum Studies from the George Washington University. She holds a BA in Anthropology from Texas A&M University and will be pursuing a Masters of Public Service Administration from the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M this fall. A native Texan, she enjoys Fightin’ Texas Aggie football, wildflower season, barbeque, iced tea, and everything vintage. She plans to pursue a career in community-based arts and humanities work.