Looking at the past through the historic present

Sophomore Megan Chui expected her internship at the National Constitution Center to give her insights into how the past plays into the present. The summer of social unrest and the pandemic added a contemporary component to the job.

Person with long brown hair smiles into the camera.
Sophomore Megan Chui interned over the summer at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia.

For Philadelphia native and history buff Megan Chui, accepting a summer internship at the National Constitution Center was a natural choice.

The job at the Center’s education department, just up the street from Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell in the middle of historic Philadelphia, was billed as helping plan and execute Summer Teacher Institutes. Teachers from around the country come to the Center to hear constitutional experts discuss a range of topics from federalism to the First Amendment to equality, part of four weeklong sessions with different themes held every year in July.

Chui, a sophomore majoring in philosophy, politics and economics in the College of Arts and Sciences, says she was expecting to do the usual running around, stapling papers, making copies, and getting materials together for the teachers. What she ended up gaining from the job was much deeper and was tinged by history, the pandemic, and the summer of social unrest.

“The job description was really based around being in person, helping support these teachers who come from all across the country to Philadelphia,” Chui says. “So much of the experience for the teachers is to be in Philadelphia and see all the landmarks, and I was nervous about how my duties would work being remote.”

Turns out, much of her duties, and those of her co-worker and fellow Penn undergraduate Yuwen Wong, a junior from Kuching, Malaysia, were easily moved online. The Institutes weren’t canceled; instead they transferred to Zoom with Chui and Wong, a political science and psychology major, splitting intern duties.

Rather than making copies and physically putting information into packets for the visiting teachers, Chui loaded up their Google classroom pages with content, teaching tools, classroom-ready resources, and ways to improve constitutional literacy.

While the internship helped her build organizational and time-management skills, it also offered her an in-depth look at the constitutional issues the Institutes were focusing on, she says.

Building surrounded by trees and a lawn
The National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. (Image: Bill Fraser, courtesy of the National Constitution Center).

The role summer interns played this year was much deeper than previous years, says Sarah Harris, the Center’s manager of education.

In summer’s past, if teachers had questions, they could stay after a session and chat with the presenters. But with the Zoom sessions, interns were tasked with researching the scholar’s positions on the topic and looking for primary sources on exhibitions to load into the teacher’s Google folder.

“A huge part of what Megan did was make our teachers feel supported in this new way, and it was much more on the fly and involved than in years past,” Harris says. 

The opportunity was part of Penn’s Summer Humanities Internship Program funded by the Center for Undergraduate Research & Fellowships and the School of Arts & Sciences, which provided a $4,500 stipend.

The National Constitution Center has had interns from Penn for the last several years, and Harris says they tend to bring an interesting and valuable perspective to the job. Many are interested in policy, which Harris says is always a good way to connect what the scholars and teachers are saying to their courses at the University. Interns are also invited to participate in the sessions they helped create and to ask questions and be a part of discussions.

“We’re always excited to see what Penn interns bring to the sessions,” says Harris. 

Something that was particularly striking to Chui was the Center’s commitment to nonpartisanship, which was evident in the speakers and scholars they brought in and by the balanced approach to so many tricky topics.

One of the seminars in particular took a modern look at an age-old American problem after the killing of George Floyd by police in the spring. 

The planned July 26-31 “Battles for Equality and Freedom” session was to have teachers work with experts to deepen their knowledge of the inequalities inherent in the Constitution of 1787, the lead-up to the Civil War, Reconstruction and its legacies, and the ratification and legacy of the 19th Amendment. Coming on the heels of Floyd’s killing, and as protests against racial injustice were still filling streets around the country, the session took on a current and important tone, Chui says.

“It was a really cool program to be able to watch, as a lot of scholars brought up these current issues of freedom and equality and they tied them into constitutional amendments. It was timely and informative,” she says.