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Crazy about history: Maybe it’s in the delivery

Tuesday, May 23, 2017


For true history buffs, the subject is nothing short of captivating. For others, it can be downright dull. Maybe, it’s in the delivery.

That’s one reason Mercyhurst University history major Sydney Van Leeuwen, a senior from Detroit, Michigan, is blending her love of history with documentary filmmaking. The History Channel has been a big cable success story as have historically based films like Gettysburg, Schindler’s List, and Lincoln. Sydney plans to start small, and is working in Erie this summer on her senior project, a documentary of the Pennsylvania Soldiers and Sailors Home.

“As someone who loves history, I’m fine learning from books, but I know history isn’t always the most exciting area for everyone,” she said. On the other hand, “Who doesn’t like watching a movie?”

Sydney worked with history professors John Olszowka and Ben Scharff and communications department chair Brian Sheridan to craft a contract minor in documentary filmmaking to partner with a concentration in public history. This past year, Sydney was also an active participant in a digital history course taught by assistant history professor Averill Earls that enabled students to share Pennsylvania history, including stories of Mercyhurst, through the popular genre of podcasts. Their series is known as “Hurstories.”

As evidence of her hard work and commitment to promoting the study of history, Sydney was recognized as one of 15 student scholars nationwide by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.

“The Historical Scholar Award is a highly competitive process with selection based on a student’s academic record, scholarly sample, and letters from faculty,” said Olszowka, history department chair. “For Mercyhurst and for Sydney this is a prestigious honor.”

The institute will send all of the winners to New York City June 4-9. Once there, they will participate in seminars and lectures, tour historical sites, and attend an awards ceremony recognizing their achievements. 

“If you look at the world today, you’ll see many of the issues we face have been around since the dawn of time,” Sydney said. “There are solutions that can be found in the past, and we have to be willing to take the time to look there.”