Bear Perspective: Researching matters of global and personal concern

Thousands of Berkeley undergraduates across every major are engaged in the research enterprise. The Office of Undergraduate Research and Scholarships is just one unit that assists these transformative experiences by providing financial and intellectual support that empowers students to deeply pursue their passions. Harriet Steele ’19, a history major, shares her research experience.

Last summer, one month shy of my 21st birthday, I embarked on a trip to the National Archives in Washington, D.C., the New York Public Library, and the American Jewish Historical Society in Manhattan. I had received a Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) to conduct full-time research for my senior thesis. As I worked in reading rooms — surrounded by crowded bookshelves, fellow researchers, and magnificent cities — I felt in awe. Archival research, which often involves examining handwritten materials and scanned papers displayed on microfilm reels, was immersive and utterly fascinating.

Photo of Harriet Steele '19 on the plaza of Doe Library smiling and looking into the distance.

Harriet Steele ’19. Photo: Keegan Houser

My research began as a study of the relationship between the U.S. Senate’s debates regarding ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide and contemporaneous discourse surrounding domestic civil rights reform, with a focus on 1949−55. I arrived at my subject serendipitously, when I came across a passage about a 1951 U.N. petition from the communist-leaning Civil Rights Congress that charged the United States with perpetrating genocide against African Americans, from legal slavery to Jim Crow. My curiosity did not wane, and I continued to read relevant monographs to hone my research question and prepare my SURF application. Before I ventured east, I had only reviewed academic publications and the limited primary sources that have been digitized. Thus, the research trip opened my eyes to the richness contained in the archives’ voluminous collections. As I pored over memoranda, correspondences, publications, and other documents, I discovered all sorts of new information that helped me develop a rudimentary understanding of the rift between some prominent supporters of the Genocide Convention and civil and human rights activists.

I sometimes ponder a term I learned in German 2 [that] means coming to terms with the past. As a Jewish person related to victims and survivors of the Holocaust, I feel a personal connection to this aspect of my research.

One evening, after completing a day’s research at the library, I strolled to the U.N. headquarters. Non-Violence, a sculpture of a knotted gun that points upwards, and the U.N. members’ flags, fluttering in the breeze coming off of the East River, seemed to evoke the hopes of activists who strived for international cooperation in the wake of World War II’s mass atrocities. I sometimes ponder a term I learned in German 2, Vergangenheitsbewältigung, which means coming to terms with the past. As a Jewish person related to victims and survivors of the Holocaust, I feel a personal connection to this aspect of my research. My background and my intellectual journey have showed me the importance of Vergangenheitsbewältigung — of confronting history’s shameful chapters and rectifying their consequences.

The capstone of my summer, presenting at a SURF conference, was a phenomenal experience. I enjoyed sharing my findings and learning about my peers’ research endeavors. At Berkeley, I have found a community of faculty, graduate student instructors, mentors, and staff who support undergraduate research. I hope that funding for these opportunities can grow, so that all students, regardless of their socioeconomic status, can enjoy their intellectual and personal rewards.

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