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History in the Making

For interns at the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education, the work is not only about making the world a better place — but about finding their place in the world.

Ari Zev (second from left), administration director for the USC Shoah Foundation Institute (SFI), based in USC College, stands with some of his interns: USC College undergraduates Caitlin Chang (left) and Sean Yetter, and Deborah Herman, who is earning her master's degree in communication management. The background shows images of survivors who gave testimonies, and people using the SFI archives. Photo credit Allison Doyle.
Ari Zev (second from left), administration director for the USC Shoah Foundation Institute (SFI), based in USC College, stands with some of his interns: USC College undergraduates Caitlin Chang (left) and Sean Yetter, and Deborah Herman, who is earning her master's degree in communication management. The background shows images of survivors who gave testimonies, and people using the SFI archives. Photo credit Allison Doyle.

Sitting on a park bench outside Leavey Library, USC College undergraduate Caitlin Chang confidently recites the mission statement of the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education (SFI):

To overcome prejudice, intolerance, and bigotry — and the suffering they cause — through the educational use of the institute’s visual history testimonies.

“That’s why I chose to work at the institute,” Chang said. “I wanted to help spread awareness, because no one wants something like the Holocaust to happen again.”

Chang, a senior pursuing a degree in history with minors in American popular culture and cinematic arts, has interned at the SFI for a year and loves the interactive, hands-on nature of the work. She discovered the institute while searching for an alternate route for her history degree.

“The Shoah Foundation Institute is a good opportunity to explore a different facet of history, one other than pure research and academia.” Chang said. “I really feel like I’m helping. It’s nice to have a job that makes me feel like that.”

Last fall, Chang worked on IWitness, the institute’s forthcoming online application that will make more than 1,000 video testimonies of Holocaust witnesses and survivors available for teachers and students. Chang watched, summarized, and attached keywords to clips, and also helped out in the testing phase of the program. IWitness will be tested in high schools around the country in the coming months, and introduced to middle and high school educators next year.

“I feel like my work has come full circle,” Chang said.

Nestled within the first floor of Leavey Library, the institute is passed unnoticed by most of the students bustling in and out of the library, although its archive of nearly 52,000 video testimonies in 32 languages from Holocaust witnesses and survivors — among the world’s largest archives of its kind — has been available for student use since the institute joined the College in 2006.

The move to the College signified a new era for the SFI. Shifting its focus from collecting testimonies of Holocaust survivors, which it has not done since 2000, the institute now shares its archive and knowledge with educators, students and researchers around the world.

“We’re also beginning to research and set-up for collecting testimonies of genocide survivors in Rwanda and Cambodia,” said Ari Zev, SFI’s director of administration.

Enter the interns, undergraduate and graduate students who apply each semester for one of the 12 paid (or for class credit) positions in the institute. While students from throughout USC are interns, they all share an interest in the institute’s work and a desire to help make the world a better place. Once hired, each intern is assigned to a specific project based on his or her interests and experience, in the areas of education (domestic and international), communications, research, administrative, and archival work.

“The interns bring a tremendous energy to the institute and help us look at the future generation,” said Zev, who runs the intern program. “It’s their generation we’re hoping to impact, so it’s essential and wonderful to work with them.”

For some students, like undergraduate Sean Yetter, working at the SFI helped him discover a new talent and gave him the opportunity to apply classroom knowledge to the real world.

“When I interviewed in January, I thought I was going to work primarily in research,” said Yetter, a history major with minors in German and cinema-television. “But I ended up being asked to design posters and fliers for some conferences.”

Despite his minimal design experience, Yetter readily agreed to the project and began learning the basics of graphic design. Eight months later, he’s still creating promotional materials and posters for the institute and wants to continue design work once he graduates.

“In the long run I’ll probably go to law school or grad school,” Yetter said. “But now I know that I also want to work for a couple years in design or graphic design because I love doing it.”

Passion plays a big role at the SFI. From the moment you walk through the doors, it’s evident that everyone working at the institute is united around a common cause. The interns are no exception.

Deborah Herman has interned for the SFI for two years, but has known about the testimony effort for nearly her entire life. Her grandparents, survivors of the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, are two of the archive’s 52,000 video testimonies. At the institute, Herman focuses on educational outreach and research for the IWitness Program.

Having graduated in May with a degree in communication and a minor in visual culture, Herman will continue to work at the SFI as she earns her master’s degree in communication management. Working for the institute, she wants to help preserve and share the archive with the next generation.

“When people like my grandparents are no longer here, it’s nice to know that their stories and what we can learn from them will continue,” Herman said of her elderly grandparents. “You hope that genocide wouldn’t exist in the first place, but because it does, it’s important for people to hear these stories and to pass on the knowledge.”

Students interested in interning can e-mail vhi-web@college.usc.edu for information.