Three NIU undergraduate students are studying towns and counties around the Great Lakes region that…
For many, earning a doctoral degree is the final destination on an educational journey. But for Chicagoland native Greg Bereiter, it signals a new beginning.
Bereiter, who is soon to be a newly-minted Ph.D., began a career as a federal historian in December with the Naval History and Heritage Command in Washington, D.C. Working as a historian is an ambition that has been with him since his undergraduate days, and helped him advance through his doctoral program in seven experience-filled years.
“Technically, I’ve been in graduate school at NIU since 2007 when I started my master’s degree,” he said, adding that he started working on his doctoral degree in Fall 2009.
“I had great experiences as an undergraduate history major, and I knew I wanted to go to graduate school.”
But before he could attend graduate school, Bereiter needed to fulfill a commitment to Uncle Sam.
“I was able to earn my bachelor’s degree with the assistance of an Army ROTC scholarship,” he said. “After I graduated I needed to serve four years on active duty.”
Bereiter went on active duty three weeks prior to 9/11 and served during a perilous time in U.S. history.
“It was a very interesting time, to say the least,” he said. “I was stateside during most of the military action because the unit I was in (the 11th Armored Calvary Regiment) was stationed at the Army’s National Training Center.”
While stationed at Fort Irwin, Calif., he helped train soldiers for deployment overseas. His regiment stayed intact until late 2004, when two thirds of his comrades were deployed to Iraq.
After fulfilling his active service commitment and receiving an Illinois Veteran Grant, Bereiter began work on a master’s degree in history at NIU.
“The grant has been a huge help in financing graduate school,” he said, adding he has also benefitted from working as a graduate teaching assistant.
His first graduate-level class – Religion in Early Modern Europe – proved to be an epiphany.
“It was a fascinating class,” Bereiter recalled. “That’s when I began zeroing in on early modern French history, which spans from the Renaissance to the French Revolution.”
“I stumbled into the field,” he added. “I didn’t plan on it, it just sort of happened. I became more and more intrigued by 16th and 17th century France.”
The class professor, Brian Sandberg, would become Bereiter’s mentor and, eventually, his dissertation adviser. Under Sandberg’s tutelage, he was a three-time participant in the University of Geneva’s Institute for the History of the Reformation summer doctoral seminar, served as a Graduate Scholar-in-Residence at the Newberry Library, and was awarded a prestigious year-long Chateaubriand Fellowship from the French government.
“I applied twice for the Chateaubriand Fellowship – and I got it on the second try,” he said.
While he conducted full-time archival work in Paris, Bereiter’s research also took him outside the city to numerous municipal and departmental archives.
“It was a fantastic experience – living in a foreign country, immersed in the culture, making new friends and getting acquainted with new colleagues, and scouring archives.”
In addition to the research experience, the opportunity to network and build relationships with researchers with similar interests was invaluable.
“It opened countless doors,” Bereiter said.
While finishing his dissertation, another door opened – this time with the Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC), where he works as a research historian.
“It’s a great opportunity,” he said. “I’m stretched in new ways every day. And my military background is very helpful.”
His main focus at NHHC is researching and writing about post-9/11 naval operations, transcribing French documents for the Naval Documents of the American Revolution series, and providing historical support to the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations.
“It’s incredibly challenging, since I need to learn more about naval history and the complex technology the Navy utilizes. But my historical research and writing skills are what matter most, and I’m building a knowledge base as I go.”
While serving as a full-time historian at NHHC, he continued to work on his dissertation at night, on weekends and days off, often utilizing the Folger Shakespeare Library. Then, on March 24, he successfully defended his dissertation.
Looking back, Bereiter doesn’t regret chasing his dream and encourages students to pursue their interest in history.
“History is a wonderful field of study,” he said. “It exposes you to the widest possible range of human experience, and makes you into a knowledgeable global citizen. It will also help prepare you for a variety of careers. History is extremely versatile.”
Paula Meyer, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences