Living just a couple of hours from Washington, D.C., when she was growing up, Taylor Neff remembers lots of class field trips to the Smithsonian Institute, the world’s largest museum, education and research complex.
“I’ve always liked museums,” she says. “I really enjoy history.”
Neff’s interest in studying the past eventually flourished at FGCU, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in 2015 and a master’s this summer — both in history. She served as president of Phi Alpha Theta, the National History Honor Society chapter at FGCU; she presented research at a Florida Historians Association conference and at another conference organized by FGCU’s Center for Judaic, Holocaust and Genocide Studies that marked the 80th anniversary of the 1936 Berlin Olympics; and last spring she published “Propaganda on the Big Screen: Film in the Soviet Union from 1925 to 1936” in FGCU’s student research journal, Aquila.
Along with support from FGCU faculty, all of this likely helped the 25-year-old from Lake Alfred earn a prestigious fellowship at the Holocaust Museum Houston. The Warren Fellowship for Future Teachers is a weeklong program that introduces university students preparing for a career in teaching or advocacy to the history and lessons of the Holocaust and other genocides. Twenty-five pre-service teacher educators and graduate students were selected from across the country for the Texas institute earlier this summer.
“This fellowship is a singular achievement for Taylor, and a recognition of the work both she and the faculty at FGCU has been doing,” says history professor Paul Bartrop, who is director of the Center for Judaic, Holocaust and Genocide Studies. “Having taught her through her undergraduate and graduate degrees, Taylor’s achievement is one of which I am especially proud. It is an indication of what our students are able to accomplish in open competition and how they can match the best across the nation.”
Established by the family of Houston Holocaust survivors Naomi and Martin Warren, the Warren Fellowship aims to develop a corps of educators who can effectively teach about genocide and the Holocaust. Eminent scholars provide historical and academic content, while university and fellowship faculty and museum staff provide instructional context. Fellows also have the opportunity to meet and work with genocide survivors – which had a powerful impact on Neff.
“I met people from Darfur, where genocide is taking place now,” she says. “I got to hear their stories. To see these girls, who couldn’t be much older than me, and hear what they’ve been through was amazing.”
Survivors’ stories can be compelling teaching tools, touching hearts and minds in ways that purely historical accounts might not. But with the Holocaust, there are fewer and fewer survivors alive to share their experiences personally.
“One of the biggest challenges to teaching about it is figuring out how to incorporate their stories without them being here,” Neff says. “There’s so much scholarship on the subject that you can easily read a book about it, but fully explaining it in a way students understand is really difficult.”
In most school systems, the lessons of the Holocaust and other genocides don’t get enough emphasis to begin with, Neff believes. Taking Bartrop’s course “History of Nazi Germany” sparked her interest in learning more about why and how genocide continues to occur.
“Since I’ve been alive Rwanda has happened, Bosnia has happened, Darfur has happened. And nothing is being done,” she says. “People need to be better educated about genocide and understand that as a society we don’t do as much as we should to help people threatened by it. I have friends who aren’t history people, and they ask me questions about these things, like ‘Did that really happen?’ ”
Whether Neff decides to pursue a career in the classroom or as an educator in a museum or other setting – she’s currently exploring doctoral programs – that is a question she hopes to help people answer.