The inaugural John Near Scholar Grant cycle is complete and the first three reports, on military insubordination during the Vietnam War, U.S.-China relations between 1972-1986 and the impact of the Gettysburg campaign on the Civil War, have been filed in the John Near Resource Center for public access.
Olivia Zhu, Justine Liu and Tyler Koteskey, all graduating this year, were celebrated by mentors, administrators, parents and history department members and by Near’s wife, Pam Dickinson, director of the Office of Communication.
The gathering filled the Near Center in Shah Hall and the recipients summed up their experiences researching their papers and thanked mentors and others who assisted their endeavors. The center, adjacent to Near’s former classroom, reflects the late teacher’s love of American history. Near taught at Harker’s middle and upper schools for 31 years prior to his passing in 2009 and his legacy includes many hundreds of students left with a love of learning and history.
The John Near U.S. History Endowment, the first of its kind at Harker, includes the funding of grants to students or teachers each year for research on history projects of their choice along with access for the entire campus for history-related databases. Near’s parents, Jim and Pat Near, established the endowment based on his wishes prior to his passing.
When Zhu started her project last year, “The UCMJ and Insubordination: Suitability of Military Judicial Responses during the Vietnam War,” she just knew she wanted it to be about insubordination. “I work on the Honor Council here at school and maybe that’s where my interest in rules and rule breaking came from,” Zhu said. “I decided, ultimately, to settle on insubordination during the Vietnam War and how the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) addressed insubordination among soldiers.
“Essentially, I explored the origins of the code of law, tracked its development and attempted to analyze its efficacy; additionally, I looked at some specific incidents and individuals (like Howard Levy, Bruce Petersen and the Presidio Mutiny) in the context of larger trends.
“As I learned more about my topic, I started figuring out why it appealed to me so much in the first place. Insubordination is something that’s very hard to perfectly define or understand, especially in the context of such a controversial role, and I was really interested in the clash between law and disobedience. I liked seeing why people tried to test the UCMJ and whether their actions were justified or not – there’s a bit of a blurry line there.
“I really enjoyed this entire research process – it’s been so much fun. I think the most important part of this grant was coming to realize that all my teachers helped me so much. For example Ms. [Julie] Wheeler and Mr. [Ray] Fowler lent me DVDs, Ms. [Carol] Zink and Dr. Erin Redfern [of the English department] lent me their own books to use, and the librarians were always so warm and so accommodating – it was just very much a community effort going into this paper,” she said.
Zhu, who will attend Harvard University, found that resources at hand were plentiful and travel to Vietnam was beyond the scope of her work. “I considered going to the Presidio but very little of the military infrastructure or records remain there,” Zhu said. “I watched a documentary with several interviews done there, so had a feel for the inside of the Presidio.”
Zhu said she probably would have not done the research without having been awarded the grant. “This is something where you are sitting in class and you think, ‘Oh, this is cool,’” Zhu said, “but without the grant there is not that impetus to pursue it and there is not the support system there. When you write the paper the most important thing is having an advisor.”
Zhu’s advice to future Near scholars: “I would suggest trying to get more access to primary sources. Also, don’t be afraid of library fines – the renewal cycle can take a week and it is way more efficient to pay the fines!”
Wheeler mentored Zhu throughout the research. “I had Olivia last year as a student and to get to work with her this year was such a pleasure,” she said. “This is quite a topic. Every time you peel back a layer you get 18 fascinating things that are tied together. Olivia managed to wade through the legalese and make it understandable.”
Liu first got interested in her topic, “The China Card versus the China Trade: Sino-American Economic Relations, 1972-1989,” covering the relationship between China and the U.S from President Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit to the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, while in class. In mentor Ramsay Westgate’s AP U.S. History class, Liu found the text devoted only two lines to Nixon’s 1972 ground-breaking visit to China. Meanwhile, for another class, Liu was writing a paper on the currency devaluation in modern China and mentally began tracing the historical line between the two events, focusing on the economic aspects.
“What I was really interested in was why Nixon thought that it was in the interest of U.S. foreign policy for Kissinger to make a secret visit to China,” said Liu. “I was interested in the economic background of that decision. I used some of the grant funds to go to the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, Calif. I was able to go into the archives room to read and handle the original documents, letters and memos relating and leading up to his 1972 trip to the PRC. What was great was that some of the documents had only really been declassified in July 2010, so that was pretty exciting. It was a really amazing opportunity and my first time ever being in close contact with documents of such historical importance.
“I think without the grant I would not have had the incentive to go out there and really write a comprehensive paper. That was the first time I got to be that close to documents that were that important to history, so that is something that I really valued that I couldn’t have done without the grant and the guidance of my mentors.” she said.
Liu will also attend Harvard in the fall and had a few words of advice, as well, for future Near scholars. “I would recommend they do their research the summer beforehand so they can figure out when a good time is to plan the trip. You have to have your entire bibliography done, you have to know where your paper is going – you have to have that outline structured for it to be a really productive trip. I outlined where I wanted my paper to go with questions I wanted to answer so I could track down exactly which archives, which boxes, of the thousands that are in the library, that I wanted to look at.”
Westgate was appreciative of the depth Liu went to in her researches. “The opportunity to explore such an important topic that is not only so relevant to our community and to our government but to go beneath the rhetoric and go to a deeper level was just phenomenal,” he said. “Every time I mentioned one or two things, I felt as if she came back with three or four answers, and that is just a testament to her, her tremendous work ethic and her intellectual curiosity.”
Koteskey’s project, “High Water Mark: Discussing the Impacts of National Power on Confederate Military Strategy through the Lens of the Gettysburg Campaign,” has been in development since the second grade when he was photographed wearing the uniform of a Union officer, said Koteskey, tongue-in-cheek. His paper analyzes the elements of national power as they applied to the Confederate States of America in 1863.
“It was the middle of the Civil War, and a crucial moment for the South,” he said. “They could reinforce the western half of the country,” but decided to make an offensive move against the North instead to try to force a call for peace.” Koteskey used his grant to travel to the Gettysburg region over the summer where he stayed with a family friend who is a Gettysburg battlefield guide for the Army War College.
“My host in Pennsylvania, Captain Bill Tyson, was instrumental in showing me around battlefields, helping to arrange interviews and providing valuable historical insight, which really complemented the guidance of my faculty advisor, Mr. Fowler.”
“What I think was most valuable to me in this project was going to Pennsylvania last summer to do the research,” Koteskey said. “It was a really different experience than I would have had getting information from books. I was able to visit Harper’s Ferry, and the Antietam and Gettysburg battlefields which, apart from being really awesome for a history buff, helped me form a better appreciation of some of the geographical factors constraining Civil War generals in their campaign planning,” said Koteskey, noting that he probably wouldn’t have done the research without the grant.
“My most defining memory though was probably my interview with Dr. Richard J. Sommers, the senior historian at the U.S. Army Military Heritage and Education Center in Carlisle. He is a published author on the Civil War who really embraced his time with me, turning our ‘interview’ into a Socratic discussion on Civil War strategy; it completely changed my mind, and the ultimate course of my paper, on many of the preconceived notions I had about General Lee’s best strategic option in the summer of 1863. He also gave me a tour of the Institute and its Civil War resources, and I got to go into a special library that’s normally restricted to the public.”
“It was really a rewarding experience,” Koteskey said of the entire project. “Mr. Fowler was extremely helpful because not only did we have just a ton of fun talking about civil wars, what-ifs and the ultimate outcome of the confederacy, but he really helped me focus my topic. All in all, it was a great experience and I want to thank the endowment fund for the opportunity.” Koteskey will attend UCLA in the fall and plans to major in political science, which “draws a lot on historical foundations,” so feeding his appetite for history.
Koteskey’s passion for the Civil War led him to enter and be named a finalist in the History Channel’s National Civil War Student Challenge, one of only 30 out of the thousands who took the challenge. The final test was the weekend of April 30-May 1 and final results will be announced by mid-May.
Koteskey’s words of advice to the next John Near scholars? “Have fun with your topic. Pick something you are interested in, that you really love, that you can picture yourself slaving over.”
“I really enjoyed working with Tyler,” said Fowler. “His passion and enthusiasm are easy to see and he picked a really challenging topic. He went to all the great extremes he described to set up his premise and argue that convincingly.”
The students received resounding applause for their presentations. “You three – and your work – perfectly embody what Mr. Near intended with this grant,” commented Dickinson. “He would be so incredibly proud of all of you.”