On Purpose: Portrait of History

To commemorate our 150th anniversary in 2018, the College of Liberal Arts commissioned 60 photographs taken by Xavier Tavera. Departments and programs partnered with Tavera to envision their images and to write the narratives that accompany each photograph. View On Purpose: Portrait of the Liberal Arts.


Photo of Erika Lee

Trying to make sense of the country’s latest debate over immigration is Erika Lee, a professor in the Department of History and the Asian American Studies Program, a Regents Professor and director of the Immigration History Research Center (IHRC). A faculty member since 1998, Lee has been working to connect US immigration history to contemporary conflicts over immigration and race erupting across the country and worldwide. She is part of the latest generation of historians at the University to study immigration history “from the ground up” and joins many of her current colleagues to actively make connections between history and contemporary issues.

In the early 20th century, Theodore Blegen was one of the first scholars to ever study immigration from the perspective of immigrants themselves. In the 1960s, some of our most prominent historians, including Clark Chambers, Hyman Berman, and Rudy Vecoli continued the University’s leadership in this work. They sought to study the “new” immigrants from countries in southern and eastern Europe, who had arrived through Ellis Island or come as displaced persons after World War II. Their research with immigrants in the Iron Range ultimately led to the creation of the Immigration History Research Center (in the College of Liberal Arts) and the IHRC Archives (through the University Libraries). 

Today’s immigrants and refugees are from China, India, Mexico, and Somalia, and Lee continues the important work of preserving the immigration histories of these latest generations while also creating new digital technologies along the way. In 2013, she founded the Immigrant Stories Digital Storytelling Project. Since then, the IHRC has worked with recent immigrants and refugees to cocreate short video histories about their experiences with images, text, music, and audio. With the motto “Everyone has a story to tell,” Immigrant Stories was awarded a major National Endowment for the Humanities grant to expand the project nationally and to design, build, and launch a new digital story-making website. Launched in 2017, Immigrant Stories allows anyone to create, share, and preserve their stories from anywhere and for free. In addition to English, the site is available in seven different languages, and Immigrant Stories is now being used in Europe. There are now over 300 immigrant stories representing 50+ ethnic groups in the publicly accessible collection.

Lee and the IHRC have also worked tirelessly to help shape public discussions about immigration in the past and present. Following the 2016 presidential election, Lee founded, co-designed, and managed the #ImmigrationSyllabus project, a digital educational resource including essential topics, readings, and multimedia that provide historical context to current debates over immigration. Created with a team of immigration historians from across the US and staff from the University Libraries, the #ImmigrationSyllabus helps educators, activists, and citizens in their teaching, advocacy, and public discussions about immigration in the United States. The website launched in January 2017 and received over 30,000 page views in over 107 countries in its first year alone.

Lee’s #ImmigrationSyllabus is just one example of the exciting research, teaching, outreach, and civic engagement conducted every day by our faculty and students. Together, they’re bringing the insights of history to the current challenges facing our nation and our world.

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