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Story by Claire Sykes
Jennifer Meissner always loved learning about the past, but when she was in high school she couldn’t picture what a career in history would look like.
That all changed when Meissner, who had first set her sights on law, took professor Kara Ritzheimer’s 20th Century Europe course her freshman year.
“I quickly discovered that history is full of nuances, scholars have different interpretations of the past, and scholars can employ a range of lenses through which to view the past,” Meissner says. “I had no idea that historians traveled to archives to research documents, some of which are written in foreign languages and housed abroad, went to conferences to talk with other experts, and published striking, original work.”
The combination of travel, research and writing struck a passion in Meissner. Ritzheimer only reinforced her decision to major in history. “She was very kind to me, and emphasized the importance of learning a language,” says Meissner, who’d been enjoying her basic French courses, a “nice diversion” from her other studies. “She was also the first professor who’d told me I was a good writer, which was really powerful. If someone you respect says something like that, it makes you want to work harder.” Ritzheimer told her that’s exactly what it would take if she wanted to aim for a career in history. By January 2015, Meissner added two more majors, in international studies and French, the latter a must for getting into grad school. She kept political science as a minor.
Meissner saw the compatibility among history, foreign languages and travel, all of which appealed to her early on in life, thanks to her high school history teacher. “His ancestors were from Italy and he was really passionate about the Italian Renaissance. So he’d go there and come back with pictures and talk about it,” she says.
As for French, “it’s more about my interest in language, in general. You discover new ways to think in different languages, because some things just aren’t translatable. I find that really fascinating. And French is the one I’ve explored most.” She heard the words by age five, when she took up ballet. In high school, Meissner started studying French, enchanted, like many kids her age, by Paris and the Eiffel Tower.
When she studied abroad in France to fulfill her international studies degree, she instead went to Poitiers, a city not much bigger than Corvallis. She knew that in Poitiers English is spoken less than in the larger cities, and she wanted that challenge. There, she took some direct exchange history classes with French students, studying early modern European history, in French.
“Not only was I learning history, but also learning it in French,” says Meissner. Meanwhile, she was hired by an organization called Polyglotta 86 to help organize and lead a weekly English-conversation course for French high school students.
She returned to Corvallis, eager to keep inspiring students. Meissner volunteered as a French-language assistant at Cheldelin Middle School, and helped lead OSU’s French 199 class. She was also an active member the History Students Association and as president organized weekly meetings, discussions and events. “It’s an opportunity for me to be more involved within the history department and draw more students into the club,” she says.
But it was research, guided by Assistant Professor of History Rena Lauer, that cemented Meissner’s academic interests. Lauer nominated her for a writing award for her paper on the ways that silk encouraged contact between Muslim and Christian populations during the Crusades. Meissner won the award, which was sponsored by Oregon State’s Hundere Endowment for Religion and Culture.
When it was time to find a mentor for her thesis—eventually titled “Reforming Godly Citizens: Children, Women and the Construction of Theocracy in Sixteenth-Century Geneva”—there was only one choice for Meissner. “I’ve really enjoyed working with Professor Lauer,” she says. “She has succeeded in further teaching me how to write and think historically. She helps me change my perspective and formulate new thoughts that I wouldn’t have otherwise.”
Primary school students in France will surely gain the same from Meissner, when she returns there this October for seven months to work as an English-language assistant, somewhere in the Pays de la Loire region. Her ultimate goal is a doctorate in early modern European history, focusing on France. She says, “I would love to continue to do research and work as a professor in the future. It would be the ultimate culmination of all of my interests.”
She’ll get there. That’s because “I won’t be satisfied if I don’t continue to be ambitious,” says Meissner. “I won’t accept anything less than my best work.”