Hooked on History…National History Day That Is!

By Sharon M. Deane

Director of Education at Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund

“Don’t forget to smile,” and “no points for cuteness.”  That’s what I heard from the National History Day staff and volunteers over and over again this week at the National History Day Contest 2013 held on the campus of the University of Maryland at College Park.  It was my first time volunteering as a judge for the event.

On one hand I felt like I was back in 1st grade preparing for my first ballet recital; required to “smile” at all times, even if I didn’t feel like it.  On the other hand I was asked to turn off the compassionate side of me, the part of me that can be easily taken over by a cute kid dressed in his Sunday best.  During the orientation, the staff walked us through a meticulous list of “dos and don’ts”, and those two came up repeatedly.


Sharon at Memorial Day at The Wall

Sitting in a ballroom with hundreds of other educators, historians, and volunteers from across the country, I was a bit overwhelmed.  I was now in the company of veteran judges who came year after year, including “Rachel” who has served as a judge for 31 years, since the first National History Day moved from Ohio to the University of Maryland in 1981.   Well, I can’t beat that!  This is my first time, but I’d like to keep coming back . . . I think.   And, I guess I have my friend and colleague Tim to thank; he’s the one who encouraged me to participate in the event.

Like me, there were a few other “newbies,” as the veteran volunteers liked to call us first-time volunteers.  It was like some sort of initiation lingo for them; but I didn’t mind.  It was also an opportunity for these seasoned volunteers to mentor us, with the hopes that we “newbies” would return year after year like the rest of them.  It wasn’t hard to spot us newbies; we were the ones asking all of the questions and writing down notes.  The veteran volunteers that came year after year had it all down pat, and my team of judges found it a bit humorous because I was asking so many questions.  I wanted to do things right; be a good and fair judge.

These students came from as far as China and Korea, and spent the last year putting together their projects for our scrutiny, and hopefully, to win a prize.  It was a labor of love for most of them.  So, “smiling,” doing it right, and acknowledging their hard work with compliments, regardless of the “cuteness” factor, was important.  It could be an experience they remember for a lifetime, good or bad.  And, as a first-time judge I wanted to make it a positive learning experience for the students and myself.

NHD Judge badge

NHD Judge badge

“My great-grandfather served in WWII”…“I wasn’t even interested in history, but now I am”….”We did it all on our own…” These statements during the student interviews encapsulate the essence and significance of National History Day, and it was a turning point for me.  I was “hooked” on National History Day.  With my passion for history and education, this year’s theme, Turning Points in History: People, Ideas, Events, took on a new meaning for this newbie.   By volunteering that one day, I was reinvigorated about history and “hooked” on National History Day.  I am going back next year!

Go ahead, take a step, and volunteer for something that you have passion about, whether it’s a community club or a national organization like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund.   It will make a difference in your life and the lives of others.  And, don’t forget to SMILE!