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Student Spotlight: Cheryl Dong (Ph.D. in Public History ’20)

With a faculty dedicated to academic excellence and student success at NC State, it is no surprise that students at the university go into higher education themselves. Cheryl Dong was one of those students.

Dong, part of NC State’s first cohort of public history Ph.D. students, took a leap of faith and joined the program from her studies at UNC Chapel Hill. She was able to pursue her passion studying history on memory and commemoration of the Black Power Movement.

NC State offered her a chance at a fresh start, where she was able to work with Blair L.M. Kelley, assistant dean for interdisciplinary studies and international programs in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, who nurtured her interests and gave her room to grow as a scholar and a person.

“She is the best advisor I could have asked for and has been there for both the triumphs and the struggle,” said Dong. “She always had grace and compassion when dealing with students and kept the big picture in mind even when I was flailing in the weeds. It’s a testament to her that she has built such a wonderful community of graduate students in the public history program that are all so supportive of each other. I have heard of cohorts that bond with each other, but for me, it’s the community that I found with Dr. Kelley and her other advisees that shaped who I am as a scholar and a person today.”

With a promising future ahead, Dong looks back fondly on her time at NC State. Though much of her experience was in the classroom, her best memory is very personal. Dong had her first child in the fall of 2014, the year she came to state. He “grew up” on campus and her happiest times were the days she shared with him riding the train in Pullen Park and then eating Howling Cow vanilla ice cream with sprinkles at Talley Student Union, listening to his wonder and curiosity at the world.

When saying her goodbyes to her professors at NC State, she told Dr. Charron, another mentor, that she wished there was a way to express her gratitude for everything she had done, and to pay her back for all her time and hard work invested in Dong’s success.

“Her answer was to pay it forward, to take the lessons I had learned here at NC State and nurture other students, to create opportunities where they might not see any way forward,” she said. “This is what I hope I can do every day at the University of Northern Iowa, where I took a faculty position this summer.”

As with many students, Dong’s plans were complicated by COVID-19. She had to plan a cross-country move, sell her house and buy a new one. Additionally, she had to quickly adapt to a hybrid model of teaching as an assistant professor in the History Department at the University of Northern Iowa. One silver lining, she notes, was that she was able to have a full slate of guest speakers in her Intro to Public History course due to the virtual format.

At the University of Northern Iowa, Dong supervises a graduate degree, an undergraduate minor, and two undergraduate certificate programs in the History Department. She is also director of the university’s public history program.

For other graduate students seeking to follow in her footsteps, Dong advises students to come into their graduate program with a clear idea of what they want to achieve through their education. It is also important to know the dynamics of a program before committing and to build trusting relationships with advisors before reaching campus. 

“NC State really gave me a holistic education in terms of preparing me to be an assistant professor,” said Dong. “The opportunities that I had for service, research, teaching and scholarship at NC State offered invaluable lessons for how to perform those roles.”

This post was originally published by the Provost’s Office.