Ask a Public Historian Q&A: Nicole Belle DeRise
14 January 2016 – editors
This is the second in a new series “Ask a Public Historian,” brought to you by the National Council on Public History New Professional and Graduate Student Committee.
Nicole Belle DeRise is a Historian with the Wells Fargo Family & Business History Center. Prior to joining Wells Fargo, she was the Program Manager of Brooklyn Connections, an educational outreach program at the Brooklyn Public Library. Nicole has an MA in Public History from New York University’s Graduate School of Arts and Science and a BA in History and Italian from University of Massachusetts Amherst. She lives in Queens, NY.
What was your career trajectory?
After I graduated with an MA in Public History, I got my “dream job” at a great museum. Unfortunately, within two months, the museum was shut down due to funding, and I was laid off.
I spent six months trying to find other opportunities in museums/cultural institutions/libraries; having no luck, I decided to scrap the whole public history thing and went to go work at an advertising agency. Through this experience, I learned the importance of content, storytelling, and creative thinking, and just how applicable they are in public history. Maybe more importantly, I came to understand that as a public historian, I had to effectively communicate and “sell” what it was that I do. I love history but that doesn’t mean other people will.
About a year into my advertising job, the Brooklyn Public Library (BPL) approached me regarding a position. Knowing that advertising wasn’t where I wanted to be, and having reclaimed my passion for history, I took a job as the Program Manager for Brooklyn Connections–the education outreach program that’s part of the Brooklyn Collection, the local history archive at BPL. I worked with students, educators, and administrators to effectively use primary source material and archival collections in the classroom.
While I was enjoying that opportunity, I heard about my current position at the Wells Fargo Family & Business History Center and couldn’t pass it up. The job’s focus is on using family history as both a client relationship builder and a business development tool. I have always had a passion for family history and found the idea of using history as part of a business strategy married my previous experience in a way I had to explore. I have been with Wells Fargo now for 2 ½ years and absolutely love it.
Who is the “public” in your position? How do you engage them?
The clients and prospective clients of the bank are my “public.” We engage via a formal presentation of an archive consisting of primary and secondary source material documenting their family’s history. The in-person presentation is akin to a museum exhibit–all of the records are professionally printed, annotated, and laid out for the family. Using the specific primary source material relating to their family, we are able to discuss the broad and often complicated histories that surround their story. Being able to work one-on-one with clients is such a wonderful honor for a public historian as a true dialogue can emerge in an intimate setting of a family history presentation.
What was your favorite project?
I have two! The first was writing and producing a workbook for kids. Aimed at 6- to 11-year olds, it is a primer on the basics of family history, encouraging children to ask the questions, “What is it?” and “How does it pertain to me?” It is also a place where kids can start recording their own family history and engage with their family in the process.
My second favorite project has been producing family history documentaries for our clients. Working with a filmmaker, we make bespoke films anywhere from five minutes to a few hours long recounting the family’s history. While the documentaries don’t take the place of our one-on-one meetings, they are another dimension of the work and are designed to be shareable, our goal being to connect with more family members beyond the in-person presentation.
What advice can you give to people to successfully apply for a position in a corporation?
Working for a corporation, especially a bank, is very different than working for a non-profit. Researching a prospective employer is paramount. Learning about the corporate culture and what their mission is can be incredibly helpful when interviewing. Think about questions like–What is important to the company? Is it their clients? Their product? How does this job/department fit into the greater organization?
After you understand that, think about what it is that you bring to the table that can augment their mission as well as how you are going to work collaboratively with people who are not historians. Be able to explain how you are going to translate what you do to non-historian colleagues.
Finally, look the part. Jeans and a t-shirt don’t work in corporate America. Invest in a nice business casual wardrobe, and, remember, it’s all a sales game.
What are the top pros and cons of working for a corporation?
Pros–flexibility, support, and higher earning potential. We are given a lot of latitude and backing for our projects and are encouraged to try different things in order to best serve our clients.
Cons–our job within the bank is so unique and perhaps not well understood either inside the corporation or out.
Any good resume tips specific to your field?
Tailor your cover letter and resume to the job to which you are applying. Not necessarily specific to working as a historian at a bank/corporation but make sure you spell check. Seriously. Be consistent in whatever style you use on your resume and try and keep it to one page. Always get somebody else to take another look at it for you.
Any other advice for folks on the public history job search?
Be honest with yourself and with prospective employers. Do your research on where you are applying to and make sure it aligns with what you are interested in. Take the time to assess if you like the people and the position. Interviews should be a two-way conversation. Do not be afraid to ask questions. This is both a time for an employer to determine if you’re best for the job and for you to decide if you want the job. A very smart boss used to say, “You don’t go to work to fail, you go to work to succeed,” so make sure you are setting yourself up to do just that.
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