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Careers in History: Politics

John Zwier

Former Obama campaign researcher, now researcher for a major Chicago law firm, Illinois

John ZwierI worked for the Obama for America Campaign in the national headquarters. I was what we call a research associate. The research department, I along with my colleagues, looked at the strengths and weaknesses of our candidate’s historical/legislative record. We pushed out, through the more eloquent communications shop, our strengths and responded to attacks against our perceived weaknesses. We used the historical record to shore up our campaign’s narrative and shape the future trajectory of the campaign.

Why did you choose to major in history at Calvin?

I chose to major in history at Calvin because I felt it was a way to study the trends in a whole range of issue and interest areas, including politics, economics, religion, sociology, etc. History allowed me to study how people reacted to and interacted with their environment throughout history. I hope that having studied history, I might be able to see a little more clearly how people will act today. History has always been a bit of an experiment for me; I believe history should inform us about our day and age.

How did your time at Calvin prepare you for what you are doing now?

In hearing this question, my favorite story is from 2004 Kerry-Edwards Campaign. I was in Washington, DC watching one of the debates at the national headquarters. President Bush was asked about Supreme Court Justice nominees, and he commented that he would never nominate a judge who would uphold or write a Dred Scott-like opinion. Had I not had Professor Bratt’s class, I would have completely missed the implication of such a statement. He was saying that slavery based upon property rights was analogous to abortion based on privacy rights. I had the opportunity to explain that to several of my confused colleagues. That is one example, but history very much informs how people act and interact to this day. I have spent now 17 months on the Obama campaign. and what a person says, how they say it, and where they say it all interact to connect with people in sometimes very surprising ways. But at the core, people want to know that you connect or that you can understand where they are coming from. This is their history and it is our future.

What are some of your memories of the Calvin History Department?

The most surprising and rewarding aspect of my Calvin education was the reintroduction of religion into my discourse. I had read about the European Wars of Religion before I came to college, and the lesson that I had taken away from that was that religious institutions were more often than not a force of destruction. My inclination therefore was to view religion in history with deep skepticism. Calvin showed me that though religion has been abused in history, it has also been a force of good. Ignoring religion and spiritual yearnings is to leave one with an incomplete picture of what is human and can prevent you from finding solutions to contemporary problems. I am very grateful to Calvin for balancing my perspective.

Do you have any advice for current students or those thinking of majoring in history at Calvin?

Be curious and ask questions. You may not realize it now, but Calvin professors are a great resource, and unlike at many other schools, they will take the time to explore your questions with you, even if they don't know the answers off the top of their heads.

Update: John Zwier is now working for a Chicago law firm. He says: "As a researcher for the Obama campaign and now as a researcher for a major Chicago law firm, I think my History courses prepared me well to research and analyze my materials. My senior seminar and Prof. Bratt's American History classes were very encouraging."

Nathan Leamer ('09)

Legislative affairs staff, Washington DC

Nathan LeamerI completed my era at Calvin in the spring of 2009. I majored in History (Secondary Education program) and minored in Political Science. After spending several years on the legislative staff of U.S. Rep. Justin Amash, I recently joined the legislative affairs team for Generation Opportunity, a millennial advocacy organization in DC.

Why did you choose to major in history at Calvin? Why did you choose your minor?

I decided to study history because it was a subject I always enjoyed, and I enrolled in the teaching program because I figured it was a good idea to share my passion with others. Honestly, I picked my political science minor because on (the few) Sundays when I missed church, I would always watch Meet The Press and The Week, so I figured I should understand what they were talking about.

How did your time at Calvin prepare you for what you are doing now?

At Calvin College I was challenged by my professors to think about things from a new perspective and to be prepared to articulate my presuppositions. When working with legislators and their staff, I have to utilize those same skills.

What are your plans for the future?

I measure my future plans in two year election cycles. So we'll see. I'll let you know.

What are some of your memories of the Calvin history department?

One of the most powerful moments in my college experience was when Calvin alum Ryan Reed came in to our "War and Society" class taught by Professor Berglund. I remember how quiet and attentive everyone in that room was as he told us about his work and experiences in war torn Africa. I don't think anyone was left unmoved when class was done.

Do you have any advice for current students or those thinking of majoring in history at Calvin?

Most every door in the History Department is open. There is always a professor available to talk and they all have a genuine interest in your growth as a person. Personally I was greatly encouraged by individuals such as Professor Schoone-Jongen who was my advisor all the way through Calvin and still has vested interest in me. Take advantage of this opportunity; you will rarely (if ever) find a group of wise people to learn from in and out of the classroom.

Graduate school

Many Calvin History graduates go on for advanced degrees. Here are some of the schools that recent History graduates have attended.

Boston College
Calvin Theological Seminary
Clemson University
Cornell University Law School
Davenport University
Fuller Theological Seminary
Grand Valley State University
Johns Hopkins University
Marquette University
Michigan State University
Ohio State University
Pepperdine University
Purdue University
SUNY College at Binghamton
Thomas M. Cooley Law School
University of Cincinnati
University of Michigan – Ann Arbor
University of Wales
University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee
University of Western Ontario
Wayne State University
Western Michigan University
Western Theological Seminary
Wheaton College – Illinois
Yale University