Chasing Revolutionaries in Chicago: Chelsea Denault's Off-Campus Semester


Denault is a junior majoring in history and minoring in Spanish and is a member of the Ford Institute and the Brown Honors Program. She is the daughter of Frank Denault of Shelby Township and Patricia Shwary of Clinton Township and a graduate of Chippewa Valley High School.

My friends are studying in exciting and exotic places like South Africa, Chile, Russia, Ireland -- and I sit in a cold library on a dark, stormy day in Chicago reading books from 9 to 5. To most this probably sounds miserable. And some of it is. Like having to run your hands under the hot water in the bathroom to get some feeling back. I won’t lie; I now completely understand what Robert Frost meant when he wrote the end of the world would be by ice.

But when I sit in the Special Collections room of the Newberry Library and I sneakily touch a letter that John Adams wrote or hold an almanac published the day before the Boston Massacre, I know that I chose the right program for me.

My fellow students and I like to say that this is probably the most self-selecting off-campus program ever invented. Honestly, who else would want to sit in a library all day reading and writing until you come up with a 50-page paper? We all know we want to go to graduate school and we know that in the chutes-and-ladders game of higher education, completing individual research projects at one of the most prestigious independent libraries in the country can get you up the ladder ahead of the competition pretty quick.

Besides learning more about the exciting drama of Revolutionary America, this has definitely been a time for me to learn more about myself. I realized that I love my home state of Michigan – seemingly endless rows of trees, sun shining off the lakes, the friendliness of the people – and I love Albion College and what has become my whole Albion family. The quick emails from professors or funny e-cards from my friends always make my day a little bit brighter.

But most importantly, I've learned why I want to share my passion for history with others. History is not just dates and names; it’s the stories of people and what they did and why they did it. It’s a tactile thing that ought be seen and touched and smelled and even (for the brave) tasted. Having held in my hands the actual documents from 1770s Boston that are the focus of my research, I understand that an important part of sharing history is making others feel engaged with it, immersed in it. This is why places such as Colonial Williamsburg or Fort Michlimackinac enjoy such enduring popularity with the general public, despite their, at times, skewed interpretations of history.

Denault touristing at the Navy Pier.

Still, not all of my time is spent in the library. After working hard all day, it's time to have fun – and Chicago does not disappoint! Runs at sunrise by the lakefront, free museum exhibits on pre-contact Latin American art, picking up vintage scarves at a street market, buying strange mushrooms from an old man at the farmers market, cheering for the Red Wings amidst Blackhawk fans, or just walking the streets at night overwhelmed by the neon lights and the roar of the El and the tempting smells wafting out of restaurants -- Chicago is a living, breathing city full of people and opportunities around every corner and at every stop on the El.

The life and personality of this city always have a pervading tinge of melancholy for me, however. Being a proud Detroiter who thinks that an afternoon at Eastern Market, John King Books, and Lafayette Coney Island is the greatest treat, being in a large, lively city like Chicago makes me realize how far Detroit has to go.

This summer, I worked with Albion's Ford Institute director Al Pheley to plan the Sleight Student Leadership Conference in Detroit to introduce Albion students to the city and inspire new hope for the future. During the conference, I hope that students will get to see first-hand the wonderful progress that has been made in Detroit, mostly by grassroots organizations. I hope that this conference will inspire students and other young people to take an active role in shaping Detroit’s future.

Although I’m having fun here in Chicago and taking advantage of opportunities not otherwise available to me, I am honestly excited to return back to Albion. Chicago may have hundreds of art galleries and museums and real shopping, but it still lacks more important things: my incredible professors, my sorority sisters, my band fraternity brothers, my awesome friends and everything else that makes up my normal, busy college life.