The only nearly unbelievable twist in the story of Nia Parker’s journey to the national history fair isn’t that an unanticipated difficulty left her scrambling the night before she was to present her project. It isn’t that she simply stumbled upon her topic during a school field trip to the Chicago History Museum last fall. It isn’t that this is Nia’s first time participating in any history fair. It’s that the University of Chicago Charter School 7th grader never actually thought she would make it so far. On June 10, Nia became the first UChicago Charter School student ever to participate in the Kenneth E. Behring National History Day Contest in Washington, D.C.
Representing the Carter G. Woodson Campus with her project on the Chicago school boycott of 1963, Nia advanced through school, city, and regional history fairs before visiting Springfield, IL for the first time. She took her participation at the state fair primarily as an opportunity to soak up state history. Odds at making it to nationals seemed so long that Nia’s approach to stay positive and focus on learning and having fun seemed totally rational. After all, with about 600 other students competing in the same category, what were the chances that a first-timer would be chosen to represent Illinois as a participant in National History Day? If those odds weren’t intimidating, the other projects on display definitely were. “I was overwhelmed the whole time,” she recalls. “These people had boards with TV screens in them and pictures and slideshows. I just had a plain, old board with text and pictures. I just felt like, ‘Oh well, I know what to do for next year’.”
Although her poster board may not have been as flashy as the others, Nia’s presentation was substantive, impressive, and memorable. So much so that Nia surmounted the odds and was one of two students from her category chosen to represent the state of Illinois at the national fair. The news came as a shock. “I was just trying to get the awards ceremony over with. I was just like, ‘It’s okay. I’m not going to make it. What can I do?’ And then they called my name, and we didn’t even think it was my project.” Fortunately, Nia’s surprise-induced amnesia was not contagious, and Ms. Jacobs definitely recognized the title of her project, “Freedom From Tyranny,” when it was announced as a winner. She immediately left the auditorium and phoned the campus. Nia chuckles as she remembers her teacher Ms. Jacobs’ response, “She had to run out in the hallway because she was screaming and calling the school [to tell them] I made it, which I thought was hilarious.”
Even if Nia didn’t immediately recognize her potential, her social studies teacher, Ms. Kim, definitely did. “We saw something in that first product that caught our eye and thought, ‘I think Nia can run with this.’” And Nia did run with her project, as Ms. Kim, and others who have watched Nia’s scholarly evolution can attest. Nia’s success has not only proven Ms. Kim and the rest of the social studies staff correct, but allowed Nia to flourish as a student. “I’m really impressed with how Nia took it upon herself to research on her own outside of school. She’s really dug deep into the project, and every competition has improved it even more,” says Ms. Kim. “I’m just continuously impressed with Nia.” And as Nia’s project clearly shows, it’s hard not to be impressed with her.
A self-proclaimed history junkie, a characteristic she lovingly blames her mother for, Nia’s project reflects a deep curiosity about how various historical events connect. Although her project covers a protest that occurred in 1963, Nia explains how the Great Migration, or the movement of about 6 million blacks from the rural South to northern urban cities like Chicago, created the background for such civil unrest. In addition, Nia draws connections between what happened then and current events. She sees parallels between this particular instance of blacks’ quest for educational equality and similar, recent efforts by Latinos, for example. Nia’s coach, Ms. Pat Duffy, whose mentoring services are generously provided courtesy of the Chicago Metro History fair, has been incredibly instrumental in helping Nia further contextualize and improve her project by giving feedback, exposing her to books and other archival documents, and preparing her for each level of the competition.
Along with Ms. Duffy, Ms. Kim, and the rest of the Carter G. Woodson Campus social studies staff, Nia has the full support of her family. Even Nia’s brothers willingly gave up their precious computer time in the name of advancement of the project. Her fellow Panthers have provided their own energetic support, too. “Everyone is so excited, so it’s gotten me excited,” Nia says, clearly thankful for such enthusiastic classmates. The aftershocks of Nia’s success have rippled beyond the campus and can be felt throughout the UChicago Charter School. Shayne Evans, director of UChicago Charter School, eloquently states the importance of Nia’s achievement, “Nia’s invitation to participate in the National History Fair is an amazing accomplishment. Her work, in conjunction with the support of her family, teachers and peers, is another reminder of what our young people are capable of. [UChicago Charter School] is proud of her success and wishes her luck.”
Although Nia clearly understands the significance of her feat, she vacillates between contagious excitement and describing her upcoming trip to the nation’s capital as “kinda cool,” with a casualness only a teenager can muster. Of course, who can blame her for such a relaxed and positive attitude? She’s already made history.