Natalie Rodriguez-Nelson '18

Natalie Rodriguez-Nelson; Photo credit Richard Greenly of Richard Greenly Photography Ltd.

This interview has been collected and condensed by Kelly Lin-Kremer.

Class of 2018, History

Tell me a little about where you grew up and what you’re doing now.

I grew up in Memphis, Tennessee and went to an all-girls day school for fifteen years. I knew I wanted to either do art history or history at Princeton. After taking a class with Professor Jordan about medieval history, I fell in love with it, so I majored in History and got a minor in Medieval Studies.

Then in my junior year, I was doing the thing that all juniors do, which is plan for the summer internship. I was applying to investment banking companies and consulting companies and thinking about law school. I was trying to write my cover letters, and I just couldn't. I was not passionate enough about it to try to convince them that they needed me, or even that I wanted them.

It made me pause and rethink: What do I enjoy doing? What have I liked in the past? And it was working at summer camps. It was tutoring with the refugee empowerment program in Memphis, and that's when I realized, Teaching is a profession. It's something I can do after Princeton.

I switched all of my classes around, and during junior spring I was in Teacher Prep classes. My senior spring was very busy, because I was student teaching, writing my thesis, and taking two classes, but it was well worth it.

Then I looked for fellowships, and that's how I wound up at Woodberry. It's a two-year fellowship program where you teach full-time, and they cover tuition while you work on your Master's through the University of Virginia.

Why don't you talk about some memorable courses and professors in history?

Professor Jordan’s High Middle Ages classes opened my mind to this whole new world of history that I hadn’t been exposed to before. I can still remember his lectures and hear his voice in my head sometimes. The information was presented in such a lively way.

I also worked with Professor Helmut Reimitz for my thesis. I'm actually teaching a unit on Charlemagne right now which is very heavily influenced by what I learned from his course on the Early Middle Ages. I wrote him to say thanks and to let him know that his legacy is continuing.

What was your independent work about?

You might be able to tell from my last name that I'm a quarter Puerto Rican. My grandfather never wanted to teach his kids Spanish because he didn't want them to be discriminated against. I was asked all throughout my upbringing, Do you speak Spanish? and I hated saying, No.

I studied Spanish throughout my whole career as a student, and fortunately I got to go to Princeton in Spain. That’s where I got the idea for my Junior Paper, which then I expanded into my thesis.

I was walking through the Reina Sofia when I noticed a little pamphlet from the Spanish Civil War that had an image of the Moors at the bottom, showing a clear reference to the invasion of Spain in 711 by the Muslims.

I was shocked, because these are two very different moments. How can you compare them?

But it made me want to look at the propaganda and see if there were more of those connections. And so I did an in-depth study of the propaganda from both sides of the Spanish Civil War and traced it back to the medieval myths that they were using to justify their position.

I looked at how the Francoists, or the nationalists, drew on the myths from the Muslim invasion to characterize the present moment. They talked about the idea of saving a Christian Spain and kicking out the infidels. They characterized the Republicans as communists or atheists, and so they were saving Spain once again, like they had in the Reconquista.

The Republicans on the other hand were characterizing the nationalists as another invasion, because they came up with Moroccan troops through Gibraltar much in the same way that the Muslims had in 711.

Both sides were using these medieval myths to justify their stance. I turned that into a broader historiographical approach, when I looked at two Spanish historians and the way they talked about the Middle Ages to use it for their political stance.

It was really fascinating to see how medieval history had gotten caught up in the political present. It was a way to explore my love for the Middle Ages, but also talk about the bigger questions of how it's used today. There are a lot of people who, while they don't know that much about the Middle Ages, will use it to justify their government or their political stance.

For instance, Germany and France are constantly fighting over who gets the credit for Charlemagne? Was he French? Or was he German? The truth is Charlemagne was neither, but these groups are so caught up in it because they view their legitimacy as tied to this medieval history. It was a fascinating project. I really enjoyed it.

What is the most surprising thing that has happened to you, either at Princeton or post-graduation?

I came out of the History Department with a firm grasp of the skills and big questions of history. But when I've spoken with my colleagues who were also history majors, they didn't get the same kind of in-depth practice of how to do history. They just studied it. I was surprised by the fact that it was so uncommon from other schools.

That experience has been immensely beneficial, not only for me, but also for my students because now I'm able to really teach them the skills of how to be a historian, rather than just how to study history.

What are some challenges you faced when you decided to become a teacher?

When I say I went to Princeton and that I'm a teacher, other people—even teachers—are shocked that I’m using my Princeton degree to teach, as if I should be doing something more meaningful with it, like making more money with it.

I think teaching is an incredibly meaningful way to make use of my wonderful opportunity to get to study history at Princeton. For me, that's the whole point of getting that education.

A lot of people expect it to translate to something monetary, but it’s about so much more than that. For them, it’s like an oxymoron: why should well-educated people be in education?

When I made my decision to be a teacher, I got some pushback from family and others who thought I had better things I could do with my degree. It didn't shake me from my path, but I'm sure it keeps a lot of people from pursuing teaching.

I teach because I love it and because I think it's the most important thing that I can do. I think it's why I'm here. But somebody who might not be as confident in their desire to pursue teaching, it might keep them from trying it out at all, which I think is tragic.

The world needs more educators, and especially it needs more driven educators.

Why don’t you talk a little bit about the Teacher Prep Program?

It was an amazing experience. It set me up well for teaching in the independent world. It would have set me up well for teaching in the public world as well, but I chose to go to independent schools.

I've found that I have far more training in the fundamentals of education than most of my peers. They all have great degrees in their subject area, but they never really studied how to teach it.

So I'm incredibly grateful to the Teacher Prep Program for the way that they tailored the classes to my focus in Social Studies and taught me how to teach Social Studies well. While I was in my master's in education, I found that my Teacher Prep classes had already introduced me to many of the main topics and themes in education.

I also think Teacher Prep was incredibly important because it provided me with a community of people with Princeton degrees who are pursuing teaching. It helped to have that community whenever I was feeling doubt about my path.

Do you have any advice for people majoring in history or thinking about majoring in history?

Follow your gut. If you feel drawn to history, you might not know how it's going to pan out yet, and you might not know how you're going to use it, or how it's going to translate to a career later. But the whole beautiful, amazing thing about liberal arts is that's not the point. So study what you want to study. You will find it immensely useful, even if you don't know how yet.

Also, seek help from the professors. Get to know them. That was such an amazing thing that I was able to do at Princeton.

Photo credit: Richard Greenly of Richard Greenly Photography Ltd.