Newest Smithsonian museum welcomes EHS student for the summer

James M. Loy, Miami University's College of Education, Health, and Society

Some would call it an incredible learning opportunity. Others would see it as a fantastic summer adventure. But for Maria Kahn, the chance to work at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture is decidedly both.

“I wanted to do something different this summer, to take on a new challenge,” Kahn said. “So I applied and crossed my fingers and never in my wildest dreams did I think I would end up interning for them.”

Maria KahnKahn, a Miami University sophomore studying social studies education in the College of Education, Health and Society (EHS) with a dual major in history, speaks with the electric enthusiasm of someone fully aware of the scope and significance that this opportunity holds.

And she’s eager to get started, and for very good reasons.

The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture (NMAAHC) is the newest addition to an iconic group of 19 institutions, which are nearly universally renowned as world-class educational and research centers. The NMAAHC is now expanding upon this rich legacy as the only cultural institution dedicated exclusively to exploring the African American experience, its relevance, and impact on society.

The museum stands, as President Obama stated during the recent dedication ceremony, “not just as a record of tragedy, but as a celebration of life . . . an important part of our shared story.” And since opening in September 2016, both public interest and visitor attendance have exceeded all expectations.

The Associated Press has called it the “hottest ticket in Washington, D.C.” Thousands of tickets continue to evaporate just as quickly as they’re made available and, so far, nearly 1.5 million visitors have already come to take in its messages of hope and optimism, of struggle and resilience, of pain and progress.

Next month, Kahn will begin her internship in NMAAHC’s education department where she will help facilitate a number of programs designed to promote these themes. Among her various responsibilities, which will include writing and event coordinating, Kahn will also be directly involved in a professional learning workshop for educators and students called “Let’s Talk! Teaching Race in the Classroom.”

“This is a topic that often gets barely scratched on the surface because a lot of people are uncomfortable talking about it,” Kahn said. “The goal is to give attendees strategies to talk about these topics. Because so often we don’t take the time to really critically think and get deep into it. So I think that’s something really cool that they are doing this summer, which is to try to -- I would say -- make people comfortable with being uncomfortable, which is very difficult to do.”

NMAAHC BuildingAs a student of both history and education, Kahn’s interests clearly align with the type of content and programing that NMAAHC offers. But while it may have been her history background that first sparked the idea to apply, she admits it was ultimately her EHS experience that inspired the next steps.

“The EHS faculty and staff have definitely pushed me toward something like this,” she said. “I have had a lot of really insightful conversations about things going on in the world and on campus. It has become clear that EHS, and the people in those departments, have definitely had an impact on me.”

EHS is poised to initiate and advance more salient conversations about race, diversity, inclusion, and acceptance. Here, many of the changes sweeping across our increasingly integrated global community are already reflected throughout the curricula and research of various EHS faculty.

Many hope to establish and advance the holistic, integrated, and ethical educational approaches that can ultimately lead to increased social justice and racial equity. And this has become part of Kahn’s goals as well. She’s learning how to engage difficult issues and why it’s important to transform curricula in culturally relevant ways

These are among the skills she’s already gaining as an EHS student and it’s what she hopes to continue exploring this summer at the NMAAHC.

But even beyond what lies ahead this summer, Kahn also plans to carry this approach into her future career as a teacher, as an educational leader, and as a socially conscious member of society who, very much like the NMAAHC itself, is dedicated to spreading messages of tolerance, inclusion, diversity, and understanding.

“Wherever I end up teaching, that is something I definitely want to do,” said Kahn. “Including social justice into the curriculum makes classes more meaningful because it allows the students to have that real-world application of, okay, here’s why what happened 150 years ago matters. That wakes people up.”