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Sept. 6, 2018
This story appears in the fall 2018 edition of the Northwest Alumni Magazine. To access more stories and view the magazine in its entirety online, click here.
One hundred years ago, the world was witness to a war it had never seen, and two Northwest Missouri State University alumnae are helping keep its memory alive through their work at the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri.
The site is experiencing a renaissance on the heels of a major expansion and declarations by the U.S. Congress, making it the nation’s official World War I museum and memorial. With the iconic Liberty Memorial Tower rising 217 feet above the lawn across the Kansas City skyline, overall attendance is up by more than 60 percent since 2013 to more than a half a million visitors per year with people coming from throughout the world. Attendance at its public programs is up 700 percent during the same span.
“There’s nothing anywhere comparative in Kansas City or even in the nation and possibly the world with this kind of impact on helping to influence the future in some positive ways by teaching pivotal lessons from the first global war in human history,” Debbie Swearingin Bass, a 1988 Northwest alumna who is vice president of development for the museum and memorial, said.
A series of special exhibits, programs and events are commemorating the centennial of World War I, which enveloped the world from 1914 to 1919. But the museum’s exhibits and programs also draw connections from events surrounding the war to other conflicts as well as the numerous cultural changes it initiated. World War I spurred medical advances, women’s rights and volunteerism.
“We’re a social museum told through the lens of World War I,” Bass said. “There’s so many social issues that stem from World War I. There’s many ways for people to connect to World War I.”
Tracy Gilbertson Dennis, a 2010 Northwest graduate, is a processing archivist at the museum and memorial and plays a key role in relaying the stories and impacts of World War I to museum visitors. The museum holds the most diverse collection of World War I objects and documents in the world.
“We don’t just look at World War I in a vacuum,” Dennis said. “We really focus on its enduring impact. There’s so much that happened throughout the 20th and the 21st century that can go back to World War I. It was a very important time period. We’re honored to be a part of it.”
|Tracy Dennis thumbs through a collection of World War I-era posters in the archival collection at the National World War I Museum and Memorial. Dennis has advanced through varied roles and last year was appointed the museum’s processing archivist.|
She studied at Northwest with plans to build her career in the human resources field and succeeded with the help of the University’s small class sizes and easy access to faculty. She lists the multiple skills and characteristics she honed at Northwest – from learning acceptance and gaining confidence to learning the value of community involvement and preparation. She gained leadership skills as a member of the speech team and the Delta Zeta sorority.
“I remember studying one time for an econ final 27 hours because the professor said, ‘Nobody gets an A in my class,’ and I thought, ‘My god, I’m going to prove him wrong,’ and I did. You put in enough effort, you can do it,” Bass said.
Another advantage, she says, was learning to use a computer. In the fall of 1987, Northwest placed a computer terminal in every residence hall room, making it the first public college or university in the country to do so.
“It was exciting,” she said. “We had no idea how it would impact our lives by today’s standards at all. You could send a note to your teacher – but now everything’s done that way – where then it was just experimenting and trying it out.”
Dennis, during her time at Northwest, soaked up advice passed on to her by history faculty and took advantage of opportunities to see history with her own eyes. For three consecutive summers, she enrolled in study abroad courses that that took her to Japan, England, France, Italy, Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic.
“It was so beneficial to be able to go to the place, not only because you’re surrounded by history, but it put me into a place that was so different from what I was familiar with,” Dennis said. “I really felt like it helped me grow individually.”
After earning a master’s degree in museum studies from the University of Kansas in 2012, Dennis started at the museum and memorial with part-time work in its store. She advanced to become an administrative coordinator. Then, using the experience she gained working at Northwest’s Mabel Cook Recruitment and Visitor Center, she became the learning coordinator and was charged with scheduling school visits, among other responsibilities.
“I’ve always wanted to work at a museum, and history is my background,” Dennis said. “So when I saw (the store) position open, I originally thought, ‘Oh, this will just be something I can do part-time while I’m looking for that full-time position,’ and once I got here, I realized how important the history of World War I is, and it’s something that often is overlooked by a lot of Americans. So I really fell in love with the place.”
Last year, Dennis was appointed the museum’s processing archivist through a major donor gift to expand the site’s archives. She says her experiences at Northwest, including an internship with University Archives, helped her gain confidence and prepared her for success in the field.
“Tracy is an example of someone who is willing to do whatever it takes to get her foot in the door and then working her way up and do whatever is handed to her and do it well with a smile on her face,” Bass said. “Every intern that we have come through, I always tell them to go talk to Tracy because she’s a great example.”
Dennis says it’s an honor to work at the museum and touch history on a daily basis.
“As a history major, I wanted to work with history hands-on and just be surrounded by it, and I get to do that every day, so it’s been a wonderful experience,” she said.
Mark Hornickel, Communication Manager
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