A tradition of excellence and success at the Yankton High School continued this spring when three teams of students earned the right to participate in the National History Day finals held at the University of Maryland in College Park.
The hard work and dedication across nearly the entire last school year catapulted Belle Heine, Sophie Kouri and Samantha Kanaly (Senior Group Exhibit); Katie Hauser and Kristen Rezac (Senior Group Exhibit); and Stephen Bray (Individual Paper) into the national competition.
The finals of the National History Day contest were held June 12–16. Judging took place over a two-day period with the awards ceremony, were held late in the week.
The theme for this year’s contest was "Exploration, Encounter, and Exchange."
Hauser and Rezac explored the ramifications of the "Iran Contra Affair." Bray undertook a written project entitled "Ludwig van Beethoven: The Father of Romantic Music."
However, the Kouri, Heine and Kanaly team, which inquired into why so few women enrolled in the University of South Dakota School of Law in the early years — entitled "Encounter at the University of South Dakota: Diversifying the Law School" — earned the Best of State Award at the competition.
The journey to winning the award at the national completion began for the trio in October.
"We were looking at topics and we knew we wanted to do something about women’s rights," Kouri said. "Mr. (Doug) Haar had said something about how local topics were always popular and, usually, did very well. We were exploring our options and we realized that the University of South Dakota has the only law school in the state. So, we focused on looking at that. We were looking at the classes and learning about the school and we realized that there was a long period of time that there were not any women in the law school. That prompted us to explore that and make a project out of it."
Heine explained that in the early 1900s, there were a few women enrolled, but starting after World War II there were no women.
"It wasn’t until 1969 that three women enrolled again," she said.
Kanaly said that the group scoured the USD archives, focusing on the school’s old yearbooks to identify potential contacts for their story.
"We interviewed women that went to the USD law school," she said. "We emailed them for the most part and got some good quotes from them about their experiences at the law school and how they felt discriminated a bit. One of the women we found we talked to on the phone."
Heine added that they didn’t just focus on the women from the earlier years. They also talked to more recent graduates about their experiences.
"From there, once we identified our topic and did our research, we had to build our board," Heine said. "We didn’t finally get everything pulled together until February or March. It was really nerve wracking the first time we presented."
Kouri said that the project was time consuming.
"We had to figure out how to tie a bunch of information into one project and we had to identify a national aspect so it wasn’t just South Dakota," she said. "We were able to relate it to Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Sandra Day O’Connor, and we brought in a little bit of women’s equal rights movement, too."
The trio noted they were very nervous the first time they presented their work to judges, but said it was a great learning experience that helped them later on.
"Mr. Haar had told us the judges would be hard on us a little bit," Kanaly said. "But, I didn’t think it was too bad. It was easier than I thought it would be."
Because they chose such an original topic and because the judges were not as familiar with the information they were presenting, Kouri said their board was open to a lot of interpretation questions rather than factual ones.
"Our topic, compared to others, is not one that is done a lot," she said. "So, projects that are done more often, such as the Civil War, the judges are more familiar with and can ask more in-depth questions that require factual answers, whereas our questions were open to a lot of interpretation."
However, that uniqueness is what drew people to their topic, as well.
The girls said that while they were very leery of presenting in front of people — and of the project in general — they are very glad they did it.
"We just had a lot of fun working together and learning how to work in a group," Kanaly said. "It is something that we are going to take with us as we move forward in our lives."
As for winning the "best of the state" award, they said it was a complete surprise.
"We had to compete at regionals first. That was in March," Kouri said. "There were about 50 group entrants and only four of them got to move on to state. Then in April we competed against about 15 other groups and only two of us, both of us from Yankton, moved on to nationals. At nationals, I suppose there were about 120 entrants in our group. So, we definitely didn’t expect any awards."
The group members said that their success wouldn’t have been possible without a lot of assistance from Dr. Haar and all of the help at the University of South Dakota.
"Just thank you to everyone who helped us do this, from our parents to our teachers and everyone else," Kanaly said.
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