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Museum gives innovative history internships to students

Friday, April 13, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

ST. LOUIS — By his own account, Jordan Suber had little to zero interest in events that preceded his birth 17 years ago.

History was "boring." Little more than "a bunch of dates."

Then, early last year, his mother suggested Suber apply for one of 25 spots in a new Missouri History Museum program that carried the potential to become a part-time job opportunity.

Suber's take on history has since evolved. Not only does he now embrace learning about the past, he depends on it for spending money.

"Not many kids my age can say they work in a museum," Suber, a Parkway North High School senior, boasts.

Through its Teens Make History Academy, the museum is doing its best to add more teens to the payroll in a still-tough economy in which younger workers have an even harder time than adults in finding employment.

Suber had never seen a documentary prior to joining the academy.

"Every time I saw one, I'd change the channel," Suber says with a sense of irony now that he serves as a part-time host and narrator for documentaries screened by the museum, situated in Forest Park.

It falls on a history buff since childhood — museum research associate Danny Gonzalez — to spark the same interest in the 20-plus teens from 17 area high schools who are introduced to curating, research, marketing and exhibit planning over the course of the two-month program.

The results thus far have been exactly what the museum envisioned.

"Every one of them has found value in something they've learned," said Gonzalez. "They learn that history is everything. It's your family, your city, your community."

To that end, the students are encouraged to draw on the personal experiences that demonstrate that history, above all else, is a composite formed by disparate parts.

The stories can be as simple as a remembrance of attending a Cardinals game with a parent, to sharing the naturalization documents of a great-great-grandfather who fled to the United States from Nazi Germany.

Another student's research of vintage property maps unearthed a photo of a theater that once stood on the site of his home.

"History is learning about yourself and how you fit with past generations," said Ty Randolph, a junior at East St. Louis High School.

Another avowed history buff, he traces his interest to a lifelong fascination with the works of Leonardo da Vinci. Randolph was something of an anomaly among the 2012 academy participants. Most of the students arrive in the mode of the formerly history-averse Suber.

Gonzalez says the program goes out of its way to seek out students who don't fall into the category of over-achiever.

As the end of the academy session nears, the students break into teams to work on capstone projects that reflect the areas of interest in the museum field.

Randolph and his team summoned lessons from the marketing phase of the academy by developing a video game designed to attract young people to the museum's Civil War exhibits.

The payoff is an offer to work at a part-time job with a benefit that Suber, the voice of experience, says far exceeds his minimum-wage pay.

"This looks real good on a college application," he says.

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