Gillian Smith smiling while wearing a purple sweater and red baseball hat, with canyon formations and a blue afternoon sky in the background.

Gillian Smith is living history

This graduating senior changed her academic direction—and life—at UCLA

Gillian Smith smiling while wearing a purple sweater and red baseball hat, with canyon formations and a blue afternoon sky in the background.

Courtesy of Gillian Smith

Jonathan Riggs | May 23, 2023

When she came to UCLA from Maryland, Gillian Smith fully intended to major in history as a means to one day going to law school. That is, until she got involved with the UCLA Undergraduate Research Center—Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences.

“Undergraduate research has changed my life and intended career path entirely. Initially, when I began my research with Professor Muriel McClendon, I planned to finish my honors thesis only as a personal achievement,” Smith said. “But now I have elected instead to pursue a master’s and then a doctorate in early modern history.”

Thanks to the support of the URCs, including a UCLA/Keck Humanistic Inquiry Undergraduate Research Award, the history major was able to travel to the Suffolk Archives in England to conduct on-site research on women who were charged with the crime of petty treason, the most severe form of murder that existed in early modern England. (The term referred to the act of a person killing their social superior; in practice, most defendants were women who had murdered their husbands.)

“Much of my research dealt with court records, newspaper clippings and parish records dating between the 16th and 18th centuries,” Smith said. “It was my first time working with physical documents from the early modern period. Not only did it provide me with materials for my thesis, but it inspired my wish to further study abroad and continue working with archival resources.”

Equally invaluable to Smith’s academic journey was McClendon’s mentorship and guidance. A UCLA associate professor of history, McClendon not only supervised Smith’s research project but also connected her to other social historians to help develop a network of current and future colleagues. Drawing on her interest in microhistory—the history of everyday individuals and communities at local scales—McClendon pushed Smith to expand her focus and to see research in a new light.

“Her mentorship has led us to explore questions stemming from my work that I never would have considered on my own, and inspired me to continue working on microhistories in the future,” Smith said. “Researching and writing a thesis has been a lot of work, but doing it under Dr. McClendon’s guidance has been exceptionally fun.”

Even as her academic focus as narrowed, Smith has managed to stay well-rounded by singing in UCLA’s chorale, creating an educational podcast for middle and high school students called “Hungry For History” and flexing her funny bone as editor-in-chief of the “Westwood Enabler,” UCLA’s satire magazine. In addition, she’s remained active in local animal rescue efforts, fostering 13 cats and kittens who all thrived in her care and were later successfully adopted out.

As graduation approaches, Smith is glad to know that she made the most of her undergraduate experience on and off campus, thanks in great part to the Bruin student, faculty and staff community who made this proud “Easterner” feel at home on the West Coast.

“I have had opportunities at UCLA which I never dreamed of, and I am very pleased with how much my own skills and determination have developed over the last four years so that I will take them into every future setting,” Smith said. “I have become the student I always wanted to be, and I know that when I walk across the stage, I will be making myself, my family, my friends and the professors who supported me proud!”

For more of Our Stories at the College, click here.