Student Spotlight: Rhiannon Turgel-Ethier

| Thu, 03/21/24
Rhiannon Turgel-Ethier is a sixth-year doctoral candidate in the Department of History. Photo by Danielle Wirsansky.
Rhiannon Turgel-Ethier is a doctoral candidate in her sixth year in the Department of History, part of Florida State University’s College of Arts and Sciences. Photo by Danielle Wirsansky.

Rhiannon Turgel-Ethier is a doctoral candidate in her sixth year in the Department of History, part of Florida State University’s College of Arts and Sciences. She plans to graduate in Spring 2024, and her research interests include North American Indigenous history, specifically Cherokee gold mining. Turgel-Ethier is involved in the History Graduate Student Association, and has worked as its communications officer, vice president, and president. She’s the recipient of numerous FSU and other fellowships including the Daniel and Sylvia Walbolt Graduate Fellowship, the Martin-Vegue Dissertation Fellowship, and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Fellowship at the Huntington Library – a research institute supporting humanities with its collections.

Tell us a bit about your background. Where are you from and what brought you to FSU?

I completed my bachelor’s and master’s degrees at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, which is where I’m originally from. I wrote my master’s thesis on the Georgia Gold Rush of 1828-1838, the United States’ first gold rush. Pursuing a doctorate in history was the best way to foster my love of research and continue to gain teaching experience. My research focus centered around U.S. Indigenous studies, so I was recommended to get in touch with FSU’s Allen Morris Professor of History, Andrew Frank. He loved my thesis, so I moved to Tallahassee in 2018 to collaborate with him and other researchers at FSU.

What inspired you to pursue a degree in history?

I learned mostly Canadian history, though I was always interested in U.S. Indigenous history. I took my first U.S. history course in 2013 and fell in love with it. I kept taking upper-level classes, and eventually it made sense for me to pursue a master’s degree in U.S. history. Between my undergraduate and my master’s programs, I took a motorcycle trip around the U.S. I loved seeing the historical markers, and one in Georgia called “Discovery of Gold” specifically caught my attention. It was erected in 1962, and it read that in 1828 gold was discovered by a white man. I thought it was so strange. Why would a white man be first to discover the gold when the Cherokees had lived there for centuries? That brought me here.

What should the public know about your research? Why are your topics important?

A basic history education is vital for critical-thinking skills. You make informed choices when you know more about the past. What can you take from the past? What can you make better today? U.S. and Indigenous history are often taught as separate courses, but it’s important to emphasize that Indigenous history is American history.

A lot of works on Cherokee history tend to end with Indian removal, the forced movement of indigenous tribes in North America to the West. By ending with removal, it's leading people to think that’s where Cherokee history ends. However, there is quite a rich history going beyond that, such as the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma today and how they’re still federally recognized as the Cherokee Nation.

What's something people might not know about studying a discipline in history?

High school history courses can perpetuate the idea that history is solely about memorizing facts, dates and names. No matter your interests, studying history builds communication, research, and critical-thinking skills, which are transferable to every aspect in life.

Tell us about the Martin-Vegue fellowship and what earning it means to you.

It’s a full-time fellowship granted by the FSU Department of History for students who need a semester off to write their dissertation. It’s challenging to research and write a dissertation while teaching, so it means the world to be able to take up to 16 weeks in front of my computer at home and focus on writing.

What part of the doctorate experience has been the most rewarding?

Teaching. I've taught “The Historian’s Craft,” a methodology course in which I mentor a group of 20 students for two consecutive semesters. The goal of the course is to introduce students to aspects of being a historian such as researching, teaching, and presenting at conferences, as many people are unaware of what the job entails. Students then develop their own research project based on primary sources found in the State Archives of Florida, located here at the Capitol, or in FSU’s Special Collections and Archives. It is incredibly rewarding to see students leave class with a positive view of historians’ work.

What on campus resources have helped you achieve success?

FSU Libraries and the library staff, specifically the departmental liaisons who are an invaluable resource for finding texts, books, monographs or databases, have been very helpful. I’m also a member of The Fellows Society, and being able to clarify and bounce ideas off people in an informal, interdisciplinary environment definitely helped my research.

Are there any faculty or staff who have helped or inspired you?

My adviser Andrew Frank helped me tremendously in structuring my dissertation and has been one of my biggest mentors in figuring out my post-graduation plans. My committee, made up of several faculty members here at FSU, has been incredibly helpful with my dissertation, writing reference letters, and answering any research questions I have. I’m also grateful for assistant professor of history Kathleen Powers Conti who has helped me tremendously in applying for fellowships and job opportunities.

What are you looking forward to once you graduate?

I plan to pursue positions teaching history or humanities, so I'm currently applying to different opportunities in higher education.

What advice would you have for undergraduates and fellow grad students?

Make sure to build a community. Graduate school is very challenging; there are many highs and lows, and I can’t emphasize enough the importance of having a support group.

For undergraduate students, I would say keep an open mind. Try courses that interest you – it’s the perfect time to try different things. It's very rare to go into college with your life perfectly planned out, so take this time to try a little bit of everything. Stay curious because you might surprise yourself!