A University of Central Florida team of scholars has been awarded a $290,000 contract from the National Cemetery Administration, an agency of the Department of Veterans Affairs, to archive the stories of veterans buried in the Florida National Cemetery for a new generation of students. UCF is one of three universities selected to launch the NCA’s Veterans Legacy Program.
The project, led by Amelia Lyons, associate professor of history and director of graduate programs, will engage UCF students in research and writing about veterans’ graves and monuments. In addition, UCF faculty and students will collaborate with Central Florida schools to produce interactive curriculums for K-12 students and organize a field trip to the cemetery in Bushnell, which is the county seat of Sumter County.
Involving students of all ages in the project will engage the community with the service and sacrifice of veterans, and will give undergraduate and graduate students a real-life lesson in professionalization, Lyons said.
“This experience with primary research – from identifying the subject and stories, to analyzing the sources to produce a narrative, and becoming a published author – is like no other,” Lyons said.
“Learning about the lives and stories of these soldiers is also teaching our students what a historian does,” she said. “It makes history real for them.”
Luke Bohmer, a history graduate student, recently participated in a field research day at the cemetery. “It is vital to go to where the history is, whether it’s a cemetery, or an archive. This is more humanizing and palpable than any statistic could ever be,” he said.
Janelle Malagon, an undergraduate, said she has “always had an interest in military history, and the VLP was a great hands-on experience where I had the unique opportunity to learn the stories of individual soldiers throughout American history.”
The corresponding website exhibit created by the research team – including Scot French, digital historian, Amy Giroux, a computer research specialist in UCF’s Center for Humanities and Digital Research, and graduate student assistants – will use software to virtually map the research, and UCF’s RICHES Mosaic Interface to create a digital archive.
The public will also be able to participate in the project through an interactive element at the cemetery. Giroux will lead the team in the creation of an augmented-reality app, which will include student-authored biographies of veterans for visitors.
Students are already aware of the impact the program will have. Malagon said the digital components will allow relatives to learn something about their veteran in a way that would not have been possible without the technology available today.
The Florida National Cemetery is one of 135 cemeteries overseen by the VA. Team members recently visited the site to begin their research.
And UCF researchers have already begun integrating assignments for the project into their graduate and undergraduate courses.
Students, including those in Lyons’ Modern Europe and the First World Warclass and Professor Barbara Gannon’s War and Society classes are conducting research, searching for any documented history on the veterans whose graves will be selected.
Undergraduate students are excited to participate in the project.
Kristina Himschoot comes from a family with deep military roots. Her parents met in the Air Force and both her grandparents served. “The VLP is becoming more important to me every time I learn something new about it,” she said. “I have the utmost respect for this project.”
Anson Shurr expects he will draw a deeper, more personal connection with veterans through his research. “Seeing their graves in person, epitaph and all, is personal enough, but once you realize that in many cases they lived in the same town or street as you, or you see a surname you know, it really hits home,” he said. He was particularly struck by the fact that people his own age put their lives and dreams on hold in order to fight in a war.
Kenneth Holliday, who is both a student and Army veteran, said that because April 6 marks the 100-year anniversary of the nation’s entry into World War I, the research is especially timely. ”We are in the centennial of World War I, there is no better time to recognize the service of these veterans,” he said.
Graduate students in Professor Caroline Cheong’s Seminar in Historic Preservation course are helping to identify the graves and monuments to be included and are photographing the sites for both the webpage and the app.
French, associate professor and director of public history, is having students in his Viewing American History in the 20th Century class create interactive digital materials for use on the website, and John Sacher, associate professor of history and liaison with public schools, is integrating the results of the project into K-12 curriculum that will be available for use in schools across the U.S.
In May, the UCF team and local middle- and high-school students will travel to the cemetery as a kickoff event for the program. UCF student researchers will interact with younger students at the cemetery, providing what Holiday sees as “a much more personal connection on an individual level. Instead of remembering the major battles and the big names of military and political leaders, the students and community can remember that at the heart of the conflict were average people that all of us can probably relate to in some way.”
Gannon, who is also coordinator of UCF’s Veterans History Project, said that because of the university’s engagement with veterans and rich history in creating extensive interactive exhibits and web-based tools, the funding doesn’t come of a surprise..
Other schools selected by the VA’s National Cemetery Administration for the project are San Francisco State University and Black Hills State University.
“The award of these three contracts signifies the VA National Cemetery Administration’s dedication and commitment to providing enhanced memorialization and lasting tributes that commemorate the service and sacrifice of veterans,” said Ronald E. Walters, interim undersecretary for memorial affairs.
The contracts are the first of many planned initiatives to engage educators, students, researchers and the general public through the Veterans Legacy Program. For more information, visit: www.cem.va.gov/legacy.