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A Right to Education

An Unconventional Honors Journey

Grace Soelberg is a firm believer that education is a right that should be available to all. It’s no surprise then, that both her Leadership Development experience and Honors Thesis share roots in education. Recently we reached out to Grace to tell us more about these experiences. “I had an unconventional Honors Program journey,” she said. She didn’t anticipate joining the Honors Program when entering BYU since her intent was to graduate with her bachelor’s degree in three years. She was on track to do so when she realized that she wasn’t quite ready to leave BYU, and wanted to improve herself more as a student and a scholar before her graduation. With both her major and minors completed, she has spent this last year of her undergraduate experience completing the Honors Program.

In the fall, Grace completed a unique Leadership Development experience as a volunteer through the University of Utah Prison Education Program at the Utah State Prison. She worked with Dr. Matthew Mason, Professor of History, who recruited her specifically for the assignment. Grace said she had taken several classes from Dr. Mason while at BYU, and was thrilled at the opportunity to work directly with him. She has always been passionate about both education and prison reform, so for her this was an incredible opportunity to combine her unique interests and fill an interdisciplinary role. Dr. Mason volunteered his own time to teach a modified version of the HIST 373 course, which centers on the social and political aspects of the Civil War period. Grace served as his teaching assistant, and was responsible for setting up the classroom at the prison each Tuesday for lecture, as well as hosting TA Labs on Thursdays where she gave workshops on navigating academic texts, writing, and test prep skills.

This experience certainly had an impact for the students who took the course. Of her experience, Grace said, “Over the course of the semester, I saw tremendous growth in the students, and it was so fulfilling to watch them connect the history to current events and to be so excited to come to class and participate each week.” This experience also reaffirmed to Grace both the power of knowledge and her real desire to pursue a career in education!

This role also required a significant amount of responsibility from Grace. Every Thursday, she ran the TA lab on her own. She had to prepare lessons and activities for each block, and always needed to be prepared to fill three hours’ worth of time with material. Another key component of her work was learning how to be a supportive leader, as well as to work effectively with a group. There was a wide range of academic experience and ability within the students in her classroom. Because of this range, Grace had to learn how to balance the student’s abilities in order to make class effective and engaging for every student. She also noted that the nature of working with incarcerated individuals was admittedly uncommon, and she had to learn how to adapt to that form of teaching. Unlike being a TA at BYU, Grace couldn't show her students videos or helpful aids on the internet, communicate with them through email, or suggest books or other supplemental materials to them. She had to learn to use what they had available to them, and work with their unique level of understanding to help them succeed in the course. Over the course of the semester, Grace had the opportunity to motivate, teach, and guide various students to accomplish academic feats for which they didn't previously think themselves capable.

“Volunteering at the Prison was definitely a unique experience that required a lot of problem solving skills and quick thinking. Nothing was ever guaranteed. There were several times class would be canceled in the middle of a lecture with no reasoning from the guards, or students wouldn't be able to attend class for other reasons we weren't always privy to. Dr. Mason and I had to learn to be extremely flexible and I believe we reworked the syllabus over three times to allow for these unexpected changes,” Grace noted.

Grace is currently working on her Honors Thesis and plans to graduate in June. Titled “Peculiar Students of a Peculiar Institution: A Historical Analysis of Racial Minority Students and Race Relations at Brigham Young University as Presented in the Banyan from 1911-1985,” her thesis focuses on BYU's racial history as represented in the yearbooks that were printed from 1911-1985.

Grace described her decision-making process for her Thesis choice this way: “Last summer, I learned that BYU published yearbooks from 1911-1985. I have always been fascinated with yearbooks-- and was even the editor of my junior high yearbook-- so I began dedicating my free time to casually searching the collection. Early on, I discovered BYU's first Black and African American student, Norman Wilson. She was a master’s student in the late 1930s. This discovery challenged the established narrative of Black students' presence at BYU, as it was previously believed that the first Black students were a group of Nigerian students in the 1950s. It was also believed that the first African American student at BYU was Darius Gray in the 1960s. As I pondered how Norman Wilson could have been forgotten, I wondered how much other history and stories had been forgotten that could be revealed by a careful study of the yearbooks. Therefore, for my Honors thesis I decided to look through all of the yearbooks BYU has published with a specific focus on race relations and representation. The research is not yet complete as I have to look through all 74 yearbooks word for word by hand, but so far one of the findings that has had the biggest impact on me is BYU's long legacy of black face, and other highly racist theatrical productions and performances."

Much of Grace’s thesis work was inspired by her time as a teaching assistant for HONORS 227: Race & Music, which she held for two semesters before even joining the Honors Program. This has continued to be one of her favorite BYU experiences. She noted, “The Unexpected Connections classes in general, but this class in particular has been one of the most academic and spiritually enhancing classes I have ever taken at BYU. The unique interdisciplinary approach, as well as the expertise of both Dr. Rugh and Dr. Howard, has been incredibly insightful and inspiring.”

As previously alluded to, Grace is grateful for the Honors Program and particularly the opportunity to write a thesis as an undergraduate, as she hopes it will make her a more competitive applicant for graduate school. She advises getting involved in work related to your thesis project as early as possible in your BYU journey. “Allow yourself enough time so that you can make your thesis something you are truly proud of, as well as a unique and important contribution to the current literature and research of your field.”

Grace Soelberg is a History Major and Africana Studies and Sociology minor. She was born and raised in Utah and has always had a passion for history. She is the recipient of the Ignacio M. Garcia Scholarship for Indigenous and Students of Color for the past two academic years, and was awarded the Jack and Mary Lois Wheatley Endowed Leadership Scholarship.