History Lives for Alumna at National World War I Museum and Memorial
April 4, 2017, marks a century since the United States entered World War I — an anniversary inspiring solemn recognition, historical reevaluation and opportunities for education. Kansas City will be the center of the celebration as the National World War I Museum and Memorial hosts the national commemoration ceremony for the occasion.
It’s exactly where Emma Priesendorf, ’16, wants to be. Currently an individual giving specialist at the National World War I Museum and Memorial working primarily to grow the museum’s membership base, the Modernists young friends group and manage the Walk of Honor, she said this year many eyes will be on the hometown she loves and the workplace she said is perfect for her.
Everywhere she looks, Priesendorf said she’s surrounded by the relics and the stories of World War I. She said she was particularly moved recently reading a letter home that would turn out to be the last from a World War I soldier who was later killed in action. The man’s great nephew sent the letter as part of a request to dedicate a brick in his relative’s memory on the museum’s Walk of Honor.
“It was just so personal that I was tearing up reading it,” she said. “He was talking about his garden at home and details like that, and it was one of those times where you realize that history is just people.”
Priesendorf said her experience at Rockhurst University played a big part in getting her here. When she transferred from Metropolitan Community College-Longview, she said she wasn’t exactly sure of what she wanted to do, but she knew she loved reading people’s stories. However, declaring herself a history major became a matter of necessity as much as a labor of love.
“They needed something on the forms,” she said, laughing.
It might have started out of convenience, but Priesendorf said the history faculty at Rockhurst opened her eyes to the sorts of opportunities a degree in the subject might open for her.
“The professors I had were really great at helping me cultivate that interest in history,” she said. “But they also always shared and encouraged opportunities for internships and to present research and I think that really made a difference for me. They wanted me to succeed in what I loved.”
Priesendorf took part in a number of undergraduate research projects — efforts that led to publication of an article in History Matters: An Undergraduate Journal of Historical Research, presented at the 2016 Missouri Conference on History, and was recognized during the University’s Festival of Student Achievement for her work in her discipline. She was also a member of the Phi Alpha Theta history honor society and helped start the Rockhurst Transformation Alliance, a campus group for commuter and transfer students. But she said getting the chance, through jobs and internships, to actually put her knowledge to work in historical institutions also had a huge impact. Working part-time at the Museum at Prairiefire in Overland Park, Kansas, as an education coordinator and as an education intern at the National World War I Museum and Memorial, Priesendorf said she found a way to make the past come alive for those in the present.
One of the areas of the National World War I Museum and Memorial Priesendorf makes a special point of noting is near the end — an exhibit that tells the story of the construction of Liberty Memorial itself. It was a grassroots effort, the story of a small number of civic leaders who paved the way for the construction and asked the community of Kansas City to invest along with them in a grand memorial to those lost in World War I. The fundraising effort was a nearly overnight success.
“Part of the reason I love it here is because I think this place and this project both say so much about Kansas City then and now,” she said.
She said it’s one of the many reasons that history never ceases to be fascinating for her — it has so much to say, not only about where we’ve been, but where we are and where we’re going.