History students gain experience for their futures by working with Detroit's past

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History student Kenneth Alyass stands in front of the historic Mackenzie House 

When choosing to major in history, it doesn’t get much better than studying in a city known for its historic architecture. History students Kenneth Alyass and Andrea Ozanich are doing just that. In preparation for their futures after graduating from Wayne State University, Alyass and Ozanich are both gaining experience by interning at historic homes in the Detroit area.

As a student researcher for the Walter P. Reuther Library, Alyass is working with Preservation Detroit, an organization dedicated to preserving the rich architectural history of the city.

In order to accommodate for renovations at Hilberry Theatre, Wayne State is planning to move the historic David Mackenzie House (the theatre’s next door neighbor) to another location. Alyass is researching Preservation Detroit’s history of successfully preserving historic architecture in preparation for a panel discussion that will be held for the Mackenzie House in November. 

While there, Alyass will give a brief lecture about the foundations of Preservation Detroit and the history of how they fought for, won and restored the David Mackenzie House. The house has been Preservation Detroit’s headquarters since 1975 when WSU students Allen Wallace and Marylin Florek formed the organization and saved the historic home from demolition. Because of the upcoming expansion to the Hilberry Theatre, their contract with the home has ended early and they will be moving their headquarters to Bethel Community Transformation Center (formerly known as Temple Beth El).

The Mackenzie House was the home of Wayne State’s founder, David Mackenzie. With the belief that people’s race, class and gender should not limit their ability to obtain a quality education, Mackenzie founded Detroit Junior College in order to create an accessible university. Five years later, it transformed into the College of the City of Detroit until it became Wayne State University in 1956.

As for how the David Mackenzie House has impacted Alyass, he says that he now realizes just how much a single place can mean to people. Not only has it impacted the future of other historic homes in the area, it has been a stepping stone for the careers and lives of many Wayne State students. Alyass says, “For over a century it has been a conduit of scholarship, the Cass Corridor community, historic preservation and community activism.”

Alyass highly recommends participating in an internship as a history major because it provides evidence of the many career options out there for those majoring in history. It is also valuable in equipping students with the skills needed for a post-graduation career. “Studying history makes you a powerful writer, an astute analyzer, a comprehensive problem solver, and gives you a historical mindset and consciousness that is crucial in our really crazy and absurd world,” Alyass says. “Spending hours a day doing and working on history has been an invaluable experience.”

After graduating from Wayne State, Alyass plans on attending graduate school. He has applied to colleges such as the University of Maryland, Harvard, University of Chicago, University of Michigan and Northwestern. “My hope is to get into a program and immerse myself in American history. I want to focus on 20th century urban history, specifically studying how class, race, capitalism and immigration plays out in the built environment.”

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History student Andrea Ozanich poses in front of the Edsel & Eleanor Ford House

As for Ozanich, she is currently interning for the Visitor Experience team at the Edsel & Eleanor Ford House in Grosse Pointe Shores. Her main task is to research and create a new holiday tour that will be offered at the house starting in November. 

She utilizes the house’s archives, newspapers and oral histories to research the debutante receptions that Eleanor Ford held for her granddaughters between 1960-69 which is what the holiday tour will be centered around.

The Edsel & Eleanor Ford House was home to the only son of Henry and Clara Ford and his wife. It was built by renowned Detroit architect Albert Kahn in 1928 for the Fords and their four children. Passionate art collectors, Edsel and Eleanor Ford filled their home with pieces from all over the world. Before her death in 1967, Eleanor decided to leave her eclectic art collection and furnishings inside the home for the public’s viewing pleasure. The paintings and furniture help to show the Ford’s commitment to the arts in Detroit.

Ozanich has seen the hard work she put in to her college career pay off while participating in this internship. “As a recent graduate, it was nice to be able to use the skills taught in the classroom and apply them in a professional setting,” Ozanich says. “The researching skills I developed while writing my capstone paper translated perfectly into researching the Ford family.”

Ozanich recommends that all history majors participate in an internship before graduation because it shows just how expansive career choices are with a history degree. “It’s a great way to learn how versatile your history degree really is beyond being a professor. My experience this summer has shown me that I can use my degree in many different avenues just in the museum world alone.”

After Ozanich completes her internship, she hopes to pursue a career as a Director of Material Culture for a historic home. “I like the idea of being able to use material culture such as paintings and furniture to help enhance the story that the historic site is trying to tell,” she says. Ozanich would also be interested in working with, restoring and preserving historic documents. “Mainly, I just want to work with the ‘good stuff’ meaning the artifacts and collections. Just put me where the stuff is and I’ll be happy.”

To learn more about a history degree from WSU, visit history.wayne.edu.

By Sarah Pickett, CLAS marketing and communications associate

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150 years in the heart of Detroit