How I Do History: Rachel Stoll

History Everywhere – Entwinement in Seemingly Unrelated Careers

By Rachel Stoll, Digital Marketing and Strategy

When the icebreaker topic of “where did you go to graduate school”  or “what did you study in college” rolls around some are surprised by my degrees in History and Political Science. This definitely has to do with the fact that I’ve spent the last 10 years in Digital Marketing and Public Relations across a number of industries.  History and Political Science have been entwined in my creative and professional work in unexpected ways.

I really, really loved History as a kid and young adult. My plan (at fourteen) was to pursue a PhD in History, specializing in the medieval era, and pursue a more traditional academia route. The only part of that plan that actually ended up happening was graduating highschool early and finishing my Bachelor’s Degree at 18, which was possible due to the following combination of factors:

  • My mom taught a night class for real estate at the community college when I was just old enough to enroll, so she encouraged me to take PE classes to occupy me while she was on campus.
  • College classes were able to be counted for high school credit, and fees were supplemented by the state of California at the time, making it affordable.
  • A private, religious highschool where the previous year three students graduated early to pursue seminary created a path for me and my friend Abigail to finish early too.
  • A lot of summer school and few winter intersessions.

Instead of graduating with a Bachelors in History, I had switched majors from a History to a Political Science with an AA/minor in History. Like many college students, I realized the subjects that interested me most (e.g Latin American history) were deeply informed by the changes in political power. I also fell in love with Political Theory, perhaps the least practical study area for nonacademic employment.

After graduating college, I didn’t apply for PhD programs and I still didn’t know what to do with my degree. My first post-college job was as a Planning Technician for a city in Los Angeles County, which basically meant that I was responsible for “over-the-counter” approvals on residential additionals and commercial tenant improvements based on zoning codes. I was surprised to find out that understanding local history was important in this job, as sometimes pulling up property history also revealed some of the first tract maps tied to the original Ranchos of California and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. My department was also sometimes responsible for working with other stakeholders, including indegenous groups who represented an important and major piece of the local histories, to solicit feedback of projects. What I learned in school allowed and required me to apply a more three-dimensional understanding of the real history of the local land from multiple lived perspectives. 

Working for the Planning Department was a great experience but after a year in the workforce, I opted to go back to school to pursue a Masters’ Degree in Political Science, focusing on International Relations and Comparative Government. Starting a full time grad school program, and re-entering an academic setting in a serious way, was an eye-opening experience. Suddenly it became apparent just how much I didn’t know; not just about Political Science, but about the historical events and cultural aspects of some of the regions I found myself focusing on for IR. I lasted a year in my first program before dropping out. It would take me another 4 years of night school to complete my Master’s, which by the time it was finished, felt totally detached from my professional life in marketing. Which brings us to the real point of this article: how history works in my career today.

My marketing career began a decade ago as a way to do a favor for a friend, helping him produce his play about the Borgia family as part of the inaugural Hollywood Fringe Festival. Producing a play is a balancing act between raising funds, getting butts in seats with ticket sales, and bringing the playwright’s vision to life. In a history-heavy play, I was once again putting my degree to work as I collaborated with our dramaturg and playwright. The production team had to make decisions about what types of costumes and props the actors could use – sometimes choosing the less historically-accurate option because of budget (definitely a mistake, in hindsight). After a successful first show, and a lot of new connections in the arts world, I was tapped to take on other arts marketing and production projects. This included a referral to a job at a Public Relations agency and working with Playwright and visionary Cindy Marie Jenkins,on her children’s play about Chernobyl, an adaptation of the book “Voices from Chernobyl.” 

Art and history have continued to intertwine for me ever since. For example, in 2017, as part of a call for artists in Santa Cruz, Aron Altmark and I presented a data-visualization project, brought to life on the Soquel Bridge, which tied into the historical data of the San Lorenzo River. The installation, “River Motion”, tied-in up-to-date data on the San Lorenzo from the United States Geological Survey (USGS) and the local Coastal Watershed Council in order to inform the sequence of the colors and patterns formed by the LED light display. In that way, River Motion became a real-time update of the San Lorenzo’s health and biome. Last year, I had the opportunity to publish a review of an immersive theatrical production about the last days of the Romanov family and their subsequent murder. Projects like River Motion and interactive, engrossing theater are part and parcel of how we preserve and experience history — keeping it relevant, digestible and memorable, so that we may continue to interpret and learn from it centuries later.

For my digital marketing and public relations clients today, I regularly analyze historical data trends, market research, global data, and new developments to create holistic strategies and collateral. Being able to synthesize data, see the trends, and understand multiple viewpoints was foundational in my education – as well as  driving consensus for recommendations.

It sounds somewhat cliché and nebulous, but there are a lot of ways you may unexpectedly use your History (or related) degree. Stay flexible and curious – the rest works itself out. 

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