Mohammad Rasool, Molly Berger
and Paul Michel
Paul Michel and Mohammad Rasool have more things in common than most longtime couples.
Best friends and high school seniors, they play soccer, have earned high marks on the Scholastic Aptitude Test, are National Honor Society members and belong to the math, English, Spanish and science honor societies at their respective schools.
They also share a predilection for history, so much so that their studies and collaborative efforts led each to receive this year's David Van Tassel Founders Award presented by Case Western Reserve University at National History Day's national competition in College Park, Md.
This award is not a wooden plaque with a gold nameplate but a full tuition scholarship to Case Western Reserve University, renewable for four years. The prestigious award honors the memory and legacy of Van Tassel, a nationally recognized historian and professor of history. He established National History Day in 1974 at Case with his history department colleagues. He died in 2000.
Initially a local contest for Cleveland-area middle and high school students, National History Day is now a yearlong intensive program sponsored in 47 states. Participants must conduct extensive primary and secondary research, interpret information and draw conclusions about the meaning of the past. In the process, students examine topics within historical context and learn important content that helps them make sense of the world around them. The program culminates each year in June with a weeklong national contest and awards program.
Traditionally, the Van Tassel Founders Award, valued at over $120,000, is presented to one individual. The Van Tassel Founders Award committee members made an exception this year, explains Molly Berger, associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. "The two candidates rose to the top of our list. Both young men had identical academic records, perfect G.P.A.s (4.0), even identical SAT scores. Moreover, even though they attend different high schools, they live in the same district and were collaborators with three other students in their senior group documentary."
Berger says it was literally impossible to choose between the two candidates. All told, she says, "both boys exemplified the high standards and ideals that the David Van Tassel Founders Award is meant to acknowledge." Liz Woyczynski, director of undergraduate admission, Judith Weiss, assistant director of undergraduate admission and Don Chenelle, director of university financial aid, concurred; thus, paving the way for the unprecedented double award.
In addition to their academic achievements, the two were chosen because they demonstrated a dedication to historical study through competition in National History Day.
Rasool of Albemarle High School in Charlottesville, Va., has participated in National History Day for the last five years; Michel of Monticello High School, also in Charlottesville, for the last four. Both placed third in their division twice and, two years in a row, placed first in the national contest.
This year, they competed with an original historical performance titled "Aliyah, Al-Nakba, Zionist Return, Palestinian Exile," which looked at the establishment of the state of Israel from both the Jewish and Palestinian perspectives.
Michel and Rasool researched their topic by interviewing William Quandt, professor of politics at the University of Virginia who served as an adviser to President Jimmy Carter and does research on Israeli-Arab issues; Israeli and Palestinians citizens and historians; and the National Archivist.
The topic and research proved timely and instructive. It reaffirmed that history is not merely a subject about long ago events but one that is interconnected with other subjects, Rasool says; hence the value of learning and studying. "History is the world around us. History is the best example from which the world can learn—both mistakes and situations met with success. Learning history also allows for cultural understanding—finding true identity as Americans and dispelling myths that have been conveniently accepted with little dispute," he says.
Michel agrees that no historical event can be viewed in isolation but needs to be examined in relation to other occurrences and cultures. "We know little of foreign language and culture," Michel says. "Ignorance of other countries, geography and history seems dangerous to me. Conversely, understanding world history is a necessary step toward establishing peace among nations, regions and other ethnic groups."
The intense preparation required for National History Day and the resulting skills--research, critical thinking, communication, assessment and historical analysis—should come in handy if the students decide to attend Case Western Reserve. "National History Day has helped me strengthen my commitment to academics, my confidence, a sense of responsibility and a determination to achieve excellence," Rasool says. "I will eagerly apply these qualities to my college career."
Read more about National History Day online.