DOTHAN - A Troy University alumna has put her degrees to good use by making a difference in the fight to preserve one of the most important historical eras in U.S. history.
Dothan native Hayden McDaniel has spent the last year organizing and digitizing interviews with men and women who lived through the Civil Rights Era in Mississippi, a major project affiliated with the University of Southern Mississippi's Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage.
"What we were doing was taking 425 interviews about the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement, digitizing them off of old cassettes and reel-to-reel tapes and into a digital form and onto our library's database," said McDaniel, who served as project coordinator. "You can listen to the full audio of these interviews on the website."
She said the goal of the project is to make sure the public has access to these oral histories about one of the most important times in American history.
"When you listen to what these people went through, the courage, bravery, fear and sadness these people endured and yet came out the other side, it's impossible not to think that this is America's story," McDaniel said. "People these days say they can't relate to the Civil Rights Movement. If people hear what these people went through and sacrificed to make our country better, that's something everybody can relate to and get into."
McDaniel's story is proof that sometimes a good professor can make a world of difference in a student's life. When she first arrived at the Dothan Campus as a transfer student, she was determined to pursue a career in English academics.
But as an English major and computer science minor, she decided to take a few history courses from Dr. Marty Olliff, a decision that proved to be one of the most important in her life.
"His class was difficult, and I have never been one to shy away from a challenge," said McDaniel, 29.
It took just a semester for McDaniel to realize computer science wasn't her forte, and she switched to a history minor.
After some fateful discussions with Olliff, she eventually decided to double major in English and history.
"Despite the fact that I think he was always trying to recruit me to the ‘dark side,' he was never going to push me into something I didn't want to do," McDaniel said. "He would really try to talk to me in a real way about the positive aspects of doing that. I decided to do it because it was the right thing for me."
One class in particular shaped her academic journey: Emergence of Modern America.
As part of the class, McDaniel had to write a term paper. At first, she wanted to write about William Jennings Bryan, but Olliff encouraged her to go a different route.
"He was like, ‘basically, no. I think you should look at this new collection at the archives, this collection of old magazines,'" she said. "This time period we were studying was the height of magazines in the home. A part of the collection was Comfort Magazine out of Augusta, Maine. That was the first time that I put my hands on archival material. I was sold at that point."
She graduated from TROY in July 2009 with a double major in English and history and then got a job working for Olliff at the Wiregrass Archives, located on the Dothan Campus.
"I have taken upper-level classes in archival studies, but everything I know I learned working for him," McDaniel said. "He let me explore, but he was going to give me something to do and not let me get by unless I gave 100 percent. Everything I put into (archiving) later on as far as course work was just adding theoretical grounding, because everything practical I learned from him in that year."
McDaniel eventually earned a master's degree in history and a public history certificate from Auburn University in 2012 before heading to the University of Southern Mississippi, where she is pursuing a doctorate.
As she prepares for the future, she wants to take after her mentor.
"If I could pick any job, it would be doing what Dr. Olliff is doing, teaching public history, but also being able to teach something in my field of study: modern southern agricultural history," she said. "I am not strictly an academic. I don't want to just sit in the ivory tower. I want to work with people and help make history available and accessible to everybody, because I think that's how we move forward and learn."
According to McDaniel, her academic success is owed to her time at Troy University.
"Honestly I would not be where I am (without TROY)," she said. "I give it entirely to Dr. Olliff for the time he invested in me and how he pushed me when I didn't know I needed to be pushed. We have remained in contact and he has remained a mentor and advisor to me."
Olliff sees McDaniel as a shining example for the University.
"I've had the opportunity to watch Hayden grow from an intelligent student into an emerging scholar," Olliff said. "People who pursue advanced degrees want to contribute intellectually to our culture and society. Hayden tracked her graduate studies in a way that will allow her to make her contributions in many of the new ways that have opened in the intellectual marketplace of the 21st century. She has demonstrated she has the ‘chops' to succeed, whether in traditional academics or public history. Regardless of what the future holds for her, she will bring honor to Troy University as her undergraduate Alma Mater."
To view the project on which McDaniel worked, visit the following link: http://digilib.usm.edu/cdm/search/collection/coh/cosuppress.