As appearing in | March, 2022 | by Ali Alberts

Telling Untold Stories: A profile of Kristy Ornelas, first-year student in the history graduate program

Finding Her Path

Life often takes unexpected twists and turns. You start off walking down one path and then you have an encounter, an experience, a moment that turns you in a different direction and leads you to a completely different avenue, one brightened by a new sense of purpose.

Kristy Ornelas’s first turning point happened in her first year at Augsburg University in Minneapolis, Minnesota, her hometown. She thought she would major in political science and eventually become a lawyer, but a course with Michael J. Lansing, a historian of the modern United States and current chair of the Department of History at Augsburg, changed her mind. Professor Lansing, whom Kristy still refers to as her mentor, was the first to encourage her to major in history in addition to political science: “When I first encountered Kristy in an entry-level U.S. history survey, I quickly figured out that she had a keen eye for context, asked tough but appropriate questions (of her peers, her instructor, and herself), and tried to understand the past on its own terms even as she tried to relate it to the present.  These qualities marked her as someone with a gift for studying history.”

Stories, Physical Places, and People

A second turning point in Ornelas’s life came when she took part in the River Semester, a unique program from Augsburg that provides students with the opportunity to travel from the Headwaters of the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico. As part of an independent study while she was paddling down the river, Ornelas researched the indigenous communities along the Mississippi. It occurred to her that the histories of these communities were not widely known.

“There are these stories connected to physical places and people,” but these stories have not been part of the national narrative, she says. “I wouldn’t be here [CSU history program] if it wasn’t for that semester on the Mississippi River. It completely changed my life…As a brown woman, I had never camped or canoed a day in my life before I decided to do this, and part of the reason for that is who has access to the outdoors, and I realized that I was one of the people who didn’t, and I wasn’t represented in the outdoors.”

This experience on the Mississippi became a motivating force for Ornelas, who realized that the American narrative of the outdoors did not include diverse voices. She gained deeper awareness of this exclusionary history and the racism in the heritage of the national parks while working for the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area during a stint with Americorps. Ornelas coordinated a project to document the voices of women who shaped the 72 miles of the Minnesota corridor of the Mississippi. As she has written: “Some women have risen to the highest levels of government service or private industry. Others have led from positions unacknowledged by accolades or titles of distinction. Their stories, struggles, and successes must be recognized when discussing history in the United States, especially those of Black, Indigenous, and women of color” (“Storying the Mississippi,” Storying the Mississippi – Minnesota Women’s Press).

The Public History Graduate Concentration at CSU

The next turning point in Ornelas’s life came when she decided to continue her studies as a public historian. It was the beginning of the pandemic, and she was looking for a new challenge. She found the perfect fit in the cultural resource management track of the CSU public history graduate program.

Ornelas was attracted to the program because of the connection between the department and the National Park Service, as well as the focus on public lands, as epitomized by the Public Lands History Center. “I enjoy writing for the public and making those stories accessible and readable. Also, I was able to talk with the faculty here before I made a decision or was even accepted, and they were all incredible. It felt like they weren’t just trying to get me here. They really cared…And I felt like if they see me, then I can 100% do and tell the stories I want to tell,” she says.

Real World Experience and Applied History

Ornelas immediately gained real world experience with the Public Lands History Center as the 2021-2022 Program of Research and Scholarly Excellence (PRSE) fellow. Even before the semester began, she camped for a few days in Rocky Mountain National Park and learned the history of backcountry campsites as part of the Parks as Portals to Learning program. “It was incredible. We got to camp. We saw some wildlife, and we also got to go into the archives and look through their documents and try to find information on the backcountry campsites…and through that, we learned that some things were missing. It was a really incredible opportunity and I got to learn how to work as part of a team,” she says.

Ornelas has focused her first semester of work on building a partnership between the Department of History’s Public Lands History Center and the Rocky Mountain Conservancy’s Diversity Internship Cohort Coordinator, Steven Ochoa. Her goal is to raise awareness of the various internship opportunities available to CSU students at Rocky Mountain National Park, particularly students whose communities are underrepresented within the National Park Service’s workforce. This summer, as a means to understand and rectify the present-day impacts of its troubled racial history, she hopes to organize a workshop about the NPS history with race for the national park’s 2022 diversity internship cohort.

Ornelas is also working with Dr. Sarah Payne on a project at the CSU Mountain Campus that will enable Ornelas to further her mission to rewrite the American storyline with a more diverse script. “This semester, I have the pleasure of working with Kristy to revamp some of the historical interpretation at the CSU Mountain Campus. Kristy will be conducting research and drafting text for a new interpretive panel to be displayed in the dining hall. The new signage will tell more diverse and inclusive histories about the people who have moved through and settled on the land that is now the CSU Mountain Campus,” says Payne.

Challenges and Promise

While Ornelas is pushing for a more complex story that is inclusive of diverse voices, she also recognizes the need to develop a reflexive awareness as she pursues her studies: “…being in these situations where there are people challenging me and engaging in these dialogues really does help to think of different ways to look at sources that I wouldn’t have previously,” she says. “I guess just being more open-minded as a historian and not inserting your own biases, as much as possible, and being up front with who you are and where you come from impacts your interpretation of sources.”

With one more year in the history graduate program, Ornelas is already thinking about what comes next: she might continue for her Ph.D., but she is also interested in working for the National Park Service. Last year, she contacted Alex Hernandez (M.A. Public History, ‘10) who works for the NPS as the Regional Program Manager of the National Heritage Areas Program to learn more about the NPS’s Heritage Internship Program (LHIP), which is “designed to provide internship opportunities for young adults, with an emphasis on Latinos, in a variety of career fields.”

Ornelas looks to the future with great hope and a sense of humility, and she also looks back with immense pride at what she has accomplished: “When I finished my first semester, I was so proud of myself, because I’m the first one in my family to do it. My mentor reminds me that I’m my ancestors’ wildest dreams and I carry that with me because that’s the only way I can keep going.”