Growing up, I didn’t have a lot of “possibility models”. For years, the family farm had not yielded the promise of success that it once held from my grandfather and his brother. I had been raised in a family where higher education was not valued.
My father had been sent to one semester of trade tech to learn skills as a mechanic—skills that could be used on the farm—and to find a wife. There was always an undercurrent of tension within my family over my future. My mother saw a smart child that didn’t quite “fit the mold”, and she knew the family farm was not sustainable. At the time, people saw me a “good Mormon farm boy”, yet I was also sustaining significant harassment in school. My mother knew I needed to find an alternative way to succeed and needed to go to college. As a first-generation student, she also knew that I would need to develop the skills to be successful in college. Because of this, she fought to allow me to spend the summer away from the farm participating in Upward Bound. It might be cliché, but it literally saved my life and set me on a course for success.
Upward Bound is where I had “possibility models” who helped me develop the skills for success in college and how to navigate systems and challenges in life. From note taking and time management workshops, attending theater performances to traveling to new cities, participating in study hall to special lectures, and living with people from diverse backgrounds to having a deep appreciation for the where one comes from, Upward Bound provided the skills, people, and experiences that allowed me to not only survive, but to also pursue my “possibility”. It allowed be to graduate High School at age 16 and enter college a few credits shy of being a sophomore. Since then I have pursued a successful public interest career and educational endeavors based—in large part—on the skills and experiences in Upward Bound, including being on the staff of the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy, seven years working in health care policy at a law school in Washington, DC, completed two graduate programs, and now working as a Lead Therapist at a Federally Qualified Health Center in inner city Baltimore—serving a “high need; underserved” community with high health disparities.
Additionally, in 2007, I came to terms with an internal struggle I’d had since early childhood. My experience in Upward Bound is not limited to my professional and educational success. Rather, the appreciation for diversity and inclusion fostered by Upward Bound laid a foundation for self-affirmation and allowing me to live an authentic life by transitioning from male-to-female.
While I already had a successful career in public policy in Washington, DC, my transition illuminated a need in health care. As such, I completed an MSW at the elite Seven Sister, Smith College School for Social Work, which is known as the most rigorous clinical social work program in the U.S. The skills learned in Upward Bound helped me navigate the intense 27-month program, often referred to as psycho-dynamic boot camp. With this education, I have quickly been promoted to Lead Therapist for LGBT Behavioral Health, where I lead a dedicated team of therapists and provide consultation services for the agencies medical and mental health providers on LGBT mental health issues. My success and life today would not have been without the “possibility models” and skills I developed in Upward Bound.
My name is Christopher Wiegenstein. I am writing this statement about myself, because a dear friend and supporter nominated me as a TRIO Achiever. This is quite an honor. Talking about myself has never been one of my strong suits. That said, here I go. I have been through a lot in my lifetime, and when things were really tough back in 2007, I was faced with a choice that would end up changing my life. I was in some serious legal struggles, and I even found myself in an emotionally dark place. As I sobered up after years of drug and alcohol abuse, I decided I would use my knowledge of addictions and do something with it. I was not sure what that was going to look like. So, I started out by living in a Rescue Mission while I looked for work, which would enable me to get back on my feet. I was interested in studying at the University of Great Falls in order to receive the education required to become an Addictions Counselor. While at UGF, my life-long academic struggles with ADHD and executive functioning disorder came back to the surface. I was introduced to the Center for Academic Excellence, and I enrolled in the TRIO/Student Support Services program. It is through TRIO/SSS that I received the needed encouragement and help to be the best that I could be. TRIO and the Center supported me with the resources needed to complete my degrees. Yes, I said degrees. While at UGF, I earned an AS in Addictions Counseling, a BA in Psychology with a Counseling Concentration, and a MS in Counseling. I went from being homeless, to working in a community-based treatment facility, to being part of a treatment team at a therapeutic boarding school. I feel blessed to have
these gifts in my life today, and without the help of TRIO, I would not have been as successful.
Almost nothing more personally affects me than when federally funded social and educational programs come under attack. Not only am I politically and philosophically committed to such programs, but I am a product of them. Since childhood I personally have benefited from food
stamps, Medicaid, public housing, public education, free student lunch, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Ronald E. McNair Scholars Program. My entire professional existence is, in fact, a result of my ability to take advantage of these opportunities. While I could speak at length about how each one of these programs enabled me to survive and thrive, I want to focus special attention on the McNair Scholars Program.
When I think back on my undergraduate experience at the University of Wyoming, I am most grateful for my participation in the UW McNair Program. History had always been my passion, but I was unsure what I would do after graduation. I knew I did not want to teach in a K-12 environment, so I thought perhaps I would pursue some sort of public history career. Graduate studies was not
even on my radar. No one I knew had ever gone to graduate school, and I was the first in my family to pursue a bachelor’s degree. By the time I was a junior I had already been exposed to historical research in my courses, but I also had to work to provide for myself. I remember thinking, that day I got an email notification about applying to the McNair Scholars Program, that it was too good to be true. They want to pay me to do research? Sign me up.
Once immersed in the program, however, I found it be so much more than a paid research opportunity. I learned how to apply to graduate school, what to expect in a graduate program, and how to navigate the complicated terrain of the academy. In short, McNair introduced me to the world I now inhabit. Program administrators guided me as I shaped my research project, helped me prepare for the GRE, and assisted me with the overwhelming process of applying to graduate school. But
what I now know was most valuable was the education I received on seemingly mundane aspects of academia, things I didn’t know or felt embarrassed to ask. What is a curriculum vitae and why do I need one? How do you write an abstract? How do you talk to potential advisors or other scholars in your field? What is a literature review? What should I include in my personal statement? How do you choose the best graduate program for you? I am forever indebted to the McNair Scholars Program for
helping me chart my path after I graduated from the University of Wyoming.
From there I attended Ohio State University as a fully funded graduate student in the Department of History. I even had a fellowship my first year, which ensured that my transition into the program was teaching free. The first few years of coursework opened my eyes to historical scholarship, made me think about things in a new way, and gave me a new vocabulary for examining
and writing about race, gender, and class, my main research interests. I was hooked on the intellectual excitement I experienced in that formative period, a feeling that propelled me forward when the work got too difficult and I thought about whether or not I really wanted to complete the Ph.D. One constant source of encouragement was UW McNair. Program Director Zackie Salmon and Assistant Director Susan Stoddard kept in touch with me, and we got together when I visited Laramie over holiday and summer breaks. They reminded me about the importance of my research and helped me get over bouts of imposter syndrome, a feeling that has, unfortunately, never quite gone away.
As I was nearing completion of my dissertation I applied for and was awarded a Presidential Fellowship from Ohio State, which provided a year of funding, teaching free. This award allowed me to complete the dissertation and prepare for the academic job market, a rigorous, painful, and often heartbreaking experience. After submitting forty-seven applications, I accepted a position as Assistant Professor of History at the University of Utah. I was thrilled!
Since I have been in Utah I have treasured my time in the classroom. I get to work with students at all levels, from freshmen in introductory surveys of U.S. history, to seniors in their capstone course, to Ph.D. students engaged in their own research. One of my favorite courses to teach is the U.S. survey, which fulfills a general education requirement for students. Thus, enrollments are quite large. Standing up in front of 200 students is both terrifying and exhilarating. I believe it is a privilege, in fact, to be in that position. And I take seriously my mission to provide them with a critically engaged historical education. As I state in my Teaching Philosophy,
I have three main objectives that I hope to achieve in the classroom. I want to actively engage students, make coursework relevant, and encourage critical reflection and analysis. To reach these goals, I employ various methods that allow students to engage historical practices—primary source analysis, synthesis, interpretation, and debate—and I teach from an inclusive perspective. That is, I aim to increase students’ attention to the diverse perspectives that make up American history and the social problems that have informed a great deal of American life. My courses are designed not only to challenge students to consider the perspectives of diverse Americans, but also to think critically about how our understanding of the American past changes when we recognize these perspectives.
This approach has a powerful effect on students’ conception of the American past, as many report that the course was “eye-opening,” and “thought-provoking,” and that they learned to “think outside the box.” Being in a position to provide this kind of learning experience for potentially hundreds of students at a time is perhaps my greatest accomplishment. In recognition of my teaching
contributions, this past year I was selected as a finalist for the Ramona Cannon Award for Teaching Excellence in the Humanities at the University of Utah.
Teaching may be one of the most cherished aspect of my position, but I am lucky to be able to concentrate on my research and publications as well. I currently am revising my dissertation for publication as a monograph, which I plan to publish with a well-respected university press. I now have published a couple of aspects of this larger project in two peer-reviewed journal articles and an essay in a forthcoming anthology. Additionally, my work recently has been recognized with two internal awards and two external awards. The John Topham and Susan Redd Butler Off-Campus Faculty Research Award from the Charles Redd Center for Western Studies at Brigham Young University provided funds for me to conduct additional research. And three fellowships, when combined, will enable me to focus exclusively on completing my book over the next two years. The
Tanner Humanities Center Faculty Fellowship and the University Research Council Faculty Fellow Award, both awarded at the University of Utah, will provide one year. The second year will be made possible with a nationally competitive year-long fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). I am particularly proud of being recognized by the NEH, especially in light of the many applications the program receives each year and my junior status in the profession.
At this point in my professional career I have had many successes. While I do not wish to diminish my accomplishments—yes, they are my own—I also cannot forget the many helping hands I have had along the way. I would not be where I am today without the federal programs with which I began this personal statement. Each of them provided a crucial safety net that made it possible to reach higher than I ever thought I could. Happily, I now get to pay it forward in my classrooms, my campus, and my community, especially in my advocating for first generation and minority students and faculty. The McNair Scholars Program made it possible for me to get to this place by setting me up for success at a crucial time in my academic career. Honestly, I do not think I would have gotten into such a competitive graduate program were it not for McNair. Without that acceptance, every other success I have had since then would not have been possible. For that I am eternally grateful.