This article originally appeared in the summer 2011 Harker Quarterly and was reprinted in Harker News Online.
The inaugural John Near Scholar Grant cycle is complete, and the first three reports were filed this spring for public access in the John Near Resource Center. Four new Near Grant winners were named in May, and a new endowment has been established by the Mitra family; the first grant winner from that endowment has also been named.
Harker parents Samir and Sundari Mitra (Shivani, grade 10) have established The Mitra Family Endowment for the Humanities, which will match gifts for the Annual Giving Campaign up to a total of $100,000.
“The subject matters taught under humanities such as history, languages, communications and philosophy are critical skills and knowledge that develop well-rounded Harker students,” said Samir Mitra. “Humanities is the bedrock of a superior education and will enable our students to stand out as recognized contributors in their future professions.”
“The Mitra family’s endowment offer, and every matching gift from others, will benefit our students every year, for years and years to come,” said Melinda Gonzales, director of development.
Justine Liu, Tyler Koteskey and Olivia Zhu, all 2011 graduates, were celebrated in the Near Center in Shah Hall by mentors, administrators, parents, history department members, Samir and Sundari Mitra and by Near’s wife, Pam Dickinson, director of the Office of Communication. The center reflects the late teacher’s love of American history. Near taught at Harker’s middle and upper schools for 31 years prior to his passing in 2009, and his legacy includes many hundreds of students left with a love of learning and history.
The John Near U.S. History Endowment, established by Near’s parents, Jim and Pat Near, was the first of its kind at Harker and funds grants to students or teachers each year for research on history projects and history-related databases for the school, as Near wished.
Liu first got interested in her topic, “The China Card versus the China Trade: Sino-American Economic Relations, 1972-1989,” covering the relationship between China and the U.S. from President Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit to the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, while reading about it in class. In a different class Liu was writing a paper on the currency devaluation in modern China and mentally began tracing the historical line between the two events, focusing on the economic aspects.
“What I was really interested in was why Nixon thought that it was in the interest of U.S. foreign policy for Kissinger to make a secret visit to China,” said Liu. “I was interested in the economic background of that decision.”
Liu, who will attend Harvard in the fall, used grant funds to go to the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, Calif. “I was able to go into the archives room to read and handle the original documents, letters and memos relating and leading up to his 1972 trip to the PRC,” she said. “I think without the grant I would not have had the incentive to go out there and really write a comprehensive paper. That was the first time I got to be that close to documents that were that important to history, so that is something that I really valued that I couldn’t have done without the grant.”
Koteskey’s project, “High Water Mark: Discussing the Impacts of National Power on Confederate Military Strategy through the Lens of the Gettysburg Campaign,” analyzes the elements of national power as they applied to the Confederate States of America in 1863.
“It was the middle of the Civil War, and a crucial moment for the South,” Koteskey said. “They could reinforce the western half of the country,” but decided to make an offensive move against the North instead to try to force a call for peace. Koteskey used his grant to travel to the Gettysburg region.
“What I think was most valuable to me in this project was going to Pennsylvania last summer to do the research,” Koteskey said. “I was able to visit Harper’s Ferry and the Antietam and Gettysburg battlefields which, apart from being really awesome for a history buff, helped me form a better appreciation of some of the geographical factors constraining Civil War generals in their campaign planning,” said Koteskey, noting that he probably wouldn’t have done the research without the grant.
“My most defining memory, though, was probably my interview with Dr. Richard J. Sommers, the senior historian at the U.S. Army Military Heritage and Education Center in Carlisle. He embraced his time with me, turning our ‘interview’ into a Socratic discussion on Civil War strategy; it completely changed my mind, and the ultimate course of my paper, on many of the preconceived notions I had about General Lee’s best strategic option in the summer of 1863.” Koteskey, who will attend UCLA in the fall, noted the whole package, winning the grant and doing the research, “was really a rewarding experience.”
Zhu’s paper, “The UCMJ and Insubordination: Suitability of Military Judicial Responses during the Vietnam War,” was perhaps an outgrowth of her work on the school’s honor council but grew to explore the history of military justice. “I decided, ultimately, to settle on insubordination during the Vietnam War and how the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) addressed insubordination among soldiers,” Zhu said.
“I really enjoyed this entire research process – it’s been so much fun,” she added. “I think the most important part of this grant was coming to realize that all my teachers helped me so much. It was just very much a community effort going into this paper.” Zhu, who will also attend Harvard in the fall, noted, “Without the grant there is not that impetus to pursue (a topic), and there is not the support system.”
Five more students will walk the path of discovery next year. Sarah Howells, grade 11, is the first Mitra Family Scholar and will join the four Near Grant recipients, Max Isenberg, Cole Manaster, Dwight Payne and Laura Yau, also all rising seniors, in pursuing a chosen historical topic they are passionate about.
“We had 11 applicants this year, and it was not an easy decision to choose from them — we were so impressed with the quality and variety of applications,” said Donna Gilbert, chair of the history and social science department.
As the ceremony wrapped up at the Near Center reception, the students received resounding applause for their presentations. “You three – and your work – perfectly embody what Mr. Near intended with this grant,” commented Dickinson. “He would be so incredibly proud of all of you.”
Read the full story of the Near Grant reception at news.harker.org. Search on “Near Grant.” Those interested in contributing to either endowment can contact Melinda Gonzales, director of development, at email@example.com.
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