Who are you?
My name is Samantha Rijkers. I am from Rotterdam originally and I now live in New York City. I’ve lived here for nine years. I was in the Class of 2010 at UCR, which was then called the Roosevelt Academy. I came to New York to study American History and I stuck around. I got my master’s degree in History of Women and Gender at New York University. After two years I got my degree and I started working in museums. I really enjoy doing public history, talking with the public about historical issues. I’ve worked at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, and I’ve been at the New-York Historical Society for six years now.
Why did you come to the Roosevelt Academy?
I don’t know exactly how I learned about the Roosevelt Academy but I was about sixteen when I did and I thought: “that’s what I want!” I was accepted and in my first year I took a lot of different classes. Initially I was more interested in science but then one day I took Introduction to American History with dr. Nancy Mykoff and again I thought: “that’s what I want!” The next semester I took a class in History of Women and Gender and after that I did a semester abroad at the University of Nebraska, which was a really interesting experience. I knew then that American history was my thing and I decided that I wanted to study it in the United States.
And so you went to New York University
Yes, I was interested in a few other programs but, to be honest, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to go to New York City. History of Women and Gender is a very small program; there were only 5 students in my year. I loved the opportunity to take classes with Ph.D. students in the graduate school, I learned a lot from them. And I was really excited about the professors I worked with: there was so much choice! The classes were much the same as at Roosevelt Academy: small scale, a lot of discussion. The biggest challenge actually came a bit unexpected for me. My fellow students were all native speakers of American English. Of course I had spoken English during my time at the Roosevelt Academy for years, but it took me a semester to fully adjust to the level and especially the rich vocabulary of American English I found here.
I worked a lot on migration history in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But I am most fascinated by twentieth century history and eventually I wrote my thesis about the history of female fire fighters in New York City. New York City started accepting female fire fighters only in the 1970s. But even then for many years they were not really allowed; the unions were pushing against them joining so not much was possible until the 1980s. Since then there has been a small number of women active as fire fighters. At first it was maybe 0.001% and presently it is still far less than 1%. There has never been more than one in every class they hired since the 1980s until after 9/11. And that was because they were hiring so many people — many fire fighters had died. I find it fascinating to see time periods that people have lived through where you can still talk to them about what they went through. They formed an organization of female fire fighters and their archives are at NYU so I had good access to the materials I needed.
And now you are at the New-York Historical Society. What do you do there?
Two and a half years ago I became the Citizenship Project Manager at the Historical Society, which is a free program that we offer to legal permanent residents of the United States to help them prepare for naturalization. As part of the naturalization process they have to answer a hundred questions about American history and government and in our classes we teach the history behind it. The Citizenship Project was launched in 2017 by the New-York Historical Society. It was a response to all the changing political conversations around immigration. A lot of immigrants are not really feeling welcome in this country. The President of our museum, Louise Mirrer, asked, “what can we do to help?” Her answer was that we can help them understand our history better.
Can you give me some of the questions from the test?
Sure. “What is the name of the current President?” “What is the name of the Speaker of the House of Representatives?” “Who was the first President?” “Who was President during the Great Depression and World War II?” “Name one war fought by the United States in the 1800s.” “Why does the flag have thirteen stripes?” “Why does the flag have fifty stars?” These are some of the questions of the integrated civics test.
When I started as a manager I wrote a curriculum that covers the questions and we offer a series of classes. It’s twenty-four hours in total, twelve two-hour sessions. People come to our museum, they go into the galleries with our educators and they learn history through art. We don’t have textbooks, we just go to paintings and artefacts that connect with the questions and talk to them. Our approach is inquiry based, so we ask our students a lot of questions about what they see. Through the conversation that follows they both practice answers to the questions and practice their English. Many of our students have never been to our museum or other museums so it is really exciting to welcome them.
How many people participated up to now?
We have served over 2300 students so far, over a thousand per year. We do classes at our museum and we also do classes off-site. Our educators bring reproductions of our paintings and artefacts and they go into the communities to teach classes at community centres, libraries, and schools.
What is the feedback that you get?
Oh [laughs], it’s fantastic. 98% of our students say that it was excellent or superior and they have a pass rate of 97% in the test. It’s just so wonderful when they send me pictures of their naturalization ceremonies.
You said earlier that when you were sixteen, you became interested in Liberal Arts. So did it prepare you for all that you have done since?
I think so. The approach of looking at a question from many different perspectives and of always having conversations works well. I work a lot with educators who mainly teach English, and the combination of learning history and English at the same time is important to us. And time management, actually, that is something I really learned at the Roosevelt Academy. I am really good at that now in my job. And of course there was the possibility to explore, to find out what I really wanted, which is characteristic of liberal arts. And of course the sense of everything being possible, that is something we have in spades at this institution. It’s a very old institution, the oldest museum in New York, from 1804. But there is very much an approach that says, “if you have an idea, just go for it, just do it.” That feels very similar to my time at the Roosevelt Academy. [Pauses] But — mainly the time management!
Back to my set questions: what is your greatest ambition?
I always wanted to create something that would help people and that is what I am doing now. I am very grateful that I get to help people become American citizens. I’ve always wanted to help people change their lives and now I am trying to figure out what is the next step. Not everyone can cure cancer, but there are other ways in which we can help people.
Are you an American citizen yourself?
Not yet, I am going through the process, hopefully it will happen next year. I would be very embarrassed if I’d fail the test.
Do you have a message for our community?
I do. Come to America, it’s a great place. I really wish that more students would come to the United States. There are great opportunities here. I know that it’s a bit more expensive and you have to apply for a visa. But I figured it out by myself, without a lawyer. And I was really well prepared. I never struggled in my master’s program. The Roosevelt Academy was harder for me than my master’s program at NYU. The amount of work and the expectations that our professors had; it really pushed me, in a good way. It helped me prepare for my master’s and my career.