Making History Come Alive

A little encouragement goes a long way to fuel a person’s passion. But Brandi Oswald, ’13, really didn’t need much. She already had high intellect, strong motivation and an uncanny ability to translate her thoughts and ideas into action.

When she enrolled at Heidelberg, Oswald already had her heart set on being an interpretive ranger at a National Park Service historic site. 

“I had talked to a ranger while on a family vacation at Monocacy National Battlefield in Frederick, Md., and she told me, ‘Yes, go for it. You can do this,’” Oswald said. “So that really set the tone for me to become a history major at Heidelberg.”

As a child, she regularly tagged along with her mom to antique stores, museums and historic sites. A family vacation to Gettysburg in 2001 reinforced her interest in our nation’s past – especially as it relates to the Civil War. 

At Heidelberg, she found the perfect place to nurture her interest and faculty who challenged and encouraged her. But a lot of the valuable hands-on experience came as a result of her own work ethic.

During the summers of her undergrad years, Oswald worked at national military parks in Fredericksburg, Va., and Gettysburg, leading tours and teaching visitors how to view and interpret the various battlefields. “Those were the best experiences,” she said. “I got to share my love of history with people all over the country and the world.”

Although there was almost no doubt, those summer internships – plus one the summer after her ’Berg graduation – were further confirmation of her career track.

In 2013, Oswald got a paid internship at the Richmond National Battlefield Park, working as a historic interpreter, giving guided tours of Civil War battle sites and talks about war industry.

As she was completing her master’s degree in public history at West Virginia University in 2015, Oswald landed one of a few coveted paid positions with the National Park Service at the Vicksburg, Miss., National Military Park. Her foot now in the door, she also completed another seasonal assignment with the NPS at Martin Van Buren National Historical Site in Kinderhook, N.Y., and was now one step closer to her ultimate career goal.

Oswald’s early career success doesn’t surprise her ‘Berg professors and mentors the least bit. 

“The faculty loved her brilliance and incredible work ethic,” said history professor Dr. David Hogan, whose class Oswald attended during her Heidelberg visit day. Fellow history professor Dr. Courtney DeMayo said her former student’s “combination of motivation and drive and tenacity was just remarkable.”

“Many students have great ideas but don’t really know how to execute them or articulate them. Brandi always did,” DeMayo said. “It was indicative of a very organized, very analytical mind.” It was DeMayo who talked Oswald into going to grad school. 

But perhaps the faculty mentor who had the strongest impact on Oswald was anthropology professor Dr. David Bush, who oversees the Johnson’s Island Civil War Military Prison site on Lake Erie. Johnson’s Island is a living lab for military archaeological study, and Oswald became involved even before she began undergrad classes at Heidelberg.

Hired by Bush as a field assistant for the Experiential Learning Program, Oswald was a natural in presenting to middle school and high school students the complex history of Johnson’s Island, he recalled. To this day, when her schedule allows, Oswald continues her involvement with Johnson’s Island.

“Probably the most impressive thing about Brandi is her willingness to continue to participate in the presentation of the story of Johnson’s Island Civil War Prison to the public,” Bush said. “She has returned almost every year to help me with the Civil War Trust’s Park Day in April and the Mansfield (Ohio) Civil War Show in May.”

Oswald recalls literally getting her hands dirty at Johnson’s Island beginning her freshman year, when she helped Bush install and tear down the weatherport at the site. “I went out and dug quite a bit as a student,” she said.

Her internship experiences, combined with her ’Berg coursework and Johnson’s Island field work all prepared her for her current position as an archivist with the Cartographic Branch of the National Archives and Records Administration in College Park, Md.

“I get to do a little bit of everything. I work with oversized archival materials, including maps, ship plans, architectural plans and drawings and many other documents,” Oswald explained. Most recently, she’s also been working with donated materials on arctic exploration – a bit off the beaten path, so to speak, but all in a day’s work.

Every day at the National Archives brings something new and exciting, but it’ll be hard to top her first day there when Oswald’s supervisor showed her a survey and drawing by Civil War generals Robert E. Lee and George B. McClellan.

“There are so many cool things there,” Oswald said. “I’ve seen a map of Gettysburg that shows the position of dead horses.”

Although she sometimes misses being in the field, she’s developed an appreciation for the art of preserving history. “I still do hope to be an interpretive park ranger at a historical site with the NPS,” she said. The path may be a bit easier now. As a permanent federal employee, Oswald can apply for jobs open only to federal employees – like the few that open up with the NPS.

One of those rare students who came to Heidelberg already focused on her field of interest, Oswald knew what she wanted, discovered how to make it happen and then did it. 

Good thing she listened to that park ranger back in Frederick, Md.!

National military parks internships were the best experiences. I got to share my love of history with people all over the country and the world.

Published in Spring 17

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