The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History announced last week that Robin Scheffler, a second-year in the College concentrating in history and chemistry, has been named a 2005 Gilder Lehrman Scholar. Scheffler will join 14 other university students this summer for a six-week program in New York City, where he will take seminars with prominent historians and conduct historical research. The scholarship covers transportation, room and board costs, and provides scholars with a stipend and a chance to produce original research from their summer work.
Scheffler was selected out of a pool of nearly 300 applicants and is the first University student to win the award, which was created three years ago. The award is one of several programs developed by the Gilder Lehrman Institute to promote the study and love of American history among students, teachers, and the general public.
“These are the brightest young historians in America,” said James Basker, professor of English at Barnard College and president of the Gilder Lehrman Institute. “We see them as a kind of Rhodes scholar-light among history majors.”
Scheffler’s affinity for history began when he was a child, and has continued to grow since then.
“I started reading about World War II when I was in elementary school and went through pretty much every book in my local library,” he recalled. Scheffler explained that as his reading increased in complexity, he noticed references to places and events with which he was unfamiliar, such as industrialization in Asia or European great-power politics, which he also studied.
“I started to form this web of ideas and events, and at that point I was pretty much hooked,” Scheffler said. “At a fundamental level, history is what helps explain not only why we are who we are, but also where that identity takes us.”
Michael Conzen, professor of geography and chairman of the Committee on Geographical Studies, praised Scheffler for bringing this mode of inquiry into the classroom. “Doing original research in class opened up a world of questions for him,” Conzen said. “[Scheffler] responded with impressive investigative skills, good analytical thinking, and creative graphic visualization of his topic.”
Scheffler studied grain elevators in Conzen’s historical geography class. “I didn’t think much of the topic when I got it, but I soon got carried away by the thrill of playing detective,” Scheffler said. “At one point, I was collecting Chicago Board of Trade statistics on the B-level at about 2 a.m.”
“It was quite a rush to see the competing trends of canal and railroad grain traffic coincide with the rise of railroad-based grain elevators against canal-based elevators,” he added.
Conzen selected Scheffler’s paper for publication in a forthcoming book of student papers on the historical geography of Utica, Illinois, in memory of a devastating tornado that hit the small town in 2004.
Scheffler may have a chance to publish a second paper this summer in New York. “I’ll be living a dream,” he said. “The idea of getting paid to roam around the archives . . . is too good to be true.”
“If I’d been asked to name an ideal summer job, this would pretty much be it.”