National History Day Finalists Advance to City Competition

This year’s National History Day event at Stuyvesant resulted in several winners who will advance to the citywide competition.

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Cover Image
By Zoe Oppenheimer

Stuyvesant juniors gathered in Lecture Hall A to commence the National History Day (NHD) Awards Ceremony on January 29, 2020, where they watched their peers present their creative reports on history. Judges then announced the projects that had made it through to the city-level competition for NHD, as well as several honorable mentions. Regardless of whether they placed, everyone who participated received an honorable certificate to recognize the hard work they had put in to produce captivating and informative displays of history.

NHD is a nonprofit organization and annual competition that allows middle and high schoolers to showcase history in contemporary ways. The competition consists of various levels. First, the top three projects of each category—documentary, performance, exhibit, paper, and website—are determined by a panel of judges, which include the librarians and history teachers. The winners are then given the chance to present their projects at the city championship in March. Should they place, the groups then move on to the state championship in April. The final round is the national championship in June.

The competition was discovered by Assistant Principal of Social Studies Jennifer Suri. “[I’ve been doing this for] about five or six years. Ms. Suri has always encouraged me to do it, and she described it as the ‘History Olympics’ and [emphasized] how great it was,” social studies teacher Robert Sandler said. “I tried it on a whim and [the] first year we did it, we did really well at the city championships. I like the competition aspect of it. I think it’s kind of fun.”

Students in the past have performed well in NHD. A previous group whose topic was on the Civil Rights Act of 1964 not only made it to Nationals, but their documentary was also asked to be screened at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Seniors Christy Guan and Hana Kim were the first place winners at Nationals last year. In keeping with their year’s theme, Triumph and Tragedy, their project was “Tragedy of the Great Fire and Triumph of Skyscraper City,” an exhibition board on the Chicago Fire of 1871 and the rise of the subsequent skyscraper city, which was accompanied by a 30-page annotated bibliography. “It was unbelievable. I really got to know Hana and Christy because I went with them to the [state-level] championships at Cooperstown in New York, and then they went to Nationals,” Sandler said.

This year’s theme is “Breaking Barriers in History,” which pushes students to define what a barrier is and identify whether it is natural, physical, or ideological. NHD participants selected topics and ideas that marked revolutionary moments in American history and presented their information through an exhibition board, website, or film. Popular themes included LGBTQ+ rights, racial discrimination, and women’s rights.

The assignment has a structured and intensive timeline. Students first choose to work individually or collectively in groups. They then choose a topic inspired by the theme and a medium they wish to use, and conduct research through primary documents, secondary sources, archival information, databases, journal articles, or interviews.

Though mostly independent, students receive the guidance and resources needed to successfully complete the assignment from Sandler as well as from social studies teacher Dr. Lisa Greenwald. Sandler often assists with topic selection and helps students obtain interviews or other resources. “In the beginning, I help them pick topics. Then, they start with an initial search,” Sandler said.

While they received support from Sandler throughout the semester, junior Rudolph Merlin and most of his classmates often had to gather information by themselves for this lengthy project. “I had an encyclopedia of the Civil War at home, and I just started looking into the primary sources,” he said. “It was mostly self-research.”

Juniors Julian Cunningham, Mimi Gillies, Max Kahn, Asif Sattar, and Jonathan Schneiderman worked together to produce a ten-minute performance for the competition and placed first in the group performance category. Their topic centered around Harvey Milk, who was America’s first openly gay politician. He was later assassinated by his homophobic opponent, Dan White.

They also conducted interviews for their project in addition to their performance. “We did [an] interview with Miriam Richter, [who] was the head of the Harvey Milk Foundation. [The foundation is a] gay rights organization that was founded by Stuart Milk, Harvey Milk’s gay nephew,” Gillies said.

Merlin chose to write a historical paper about the 54th Massachusetts Regiment—the first-ever black regiment in the United States—and their assaults on Fort Wagner, winning first place in the research paper category. “It broke the perceptions of the African American race and led to federal and state policy changes,” he said. “[The soldiers] fought while striking for better wages because they weren’t paid the same [amount] as white soldiers, and [they] also suffered a lot of casualties.”

Because the project requires extensive research, time, and meticulousness, it also helped students expand their project management skills. “[This competition] is not that kind of project where you bang it out over the weekend. It helps the kids go more in-depth. There are so many different levels of different skills: research, presentation, working in a team, [and] time management,” Sandler said.

In comparison to other assignments, many students found the NHD project more unconventional and artistic. “[This project] gives more freedom and creative license. I wouldn’t normally spend time studying Harvey Milk,” Gillies said. “This was the case for a lot of people. As Stuy students, or as high school students in general, we just don’t have time to sit around and study random things. This gives students an excuse to research [topics] they’re interested in that they otherwise might not have the time for.”

Overall, the NHD project was an enjoyable and fulfilling experience for students. “Even if we don’t get to States, it [was still] a really good experience. I learned some things [and] put on a nice, fun performance that we wrote ourselves, which was so cool.” Gillies said. “I just liked having a finished product in the end that was actually good.”

Looking ahead, students are polishing, preparing, and submitting their works to be rejudged at the next competition. “I made some edits. I definitely added some things in and took some things out because there were things that I could change, but I know for people who were doing exhibit boards or websites, they probably also changed a lot of things,” Merlin said.

The students moving on to the city competition feel optimistic about their progress so far and are awaiting the coming events. “It was a really fun time, and I’m really excited to move on to Cities because I think we had a really good performance, and I think we could make it even better,” Gillies said.

This project often has lasting effects on the participants. “It’s exhausting, but it works. The students who get into it go so in-depth into their projects,” Sandler said. “It’s a project they can take with them. A lot of the things that we do here at this school—not all the time, but sometimes—is that the students cram for the test, and then they forget about it. But they don’t ever forget about [this project].”

National History Day Winners


“Keith Haring Draws the Line Between Fear and AIDS Awareness” —Asma Berri and Sandy Zhu

“The First Political Protest Song: Breaking Racial Barriers with ‘Strange Fruits’” —Annette Kim and Misaal Tabassum

“Breaking the Barrier on Voting Rights, ‘We Shall Overcome’” —Stacy Kim, Brinja Vogler, Katherine Wu, and Grace Yang


“The 1909 Shirtwaist Strike: How 20,000 Women Broke Barriers in Labour Activism” —Roland Blake, Declan Breen, Jenny Chen, and Sofiane Larbi

“Refuseniks: Breaking the Soviet Barrier” —Saad Ghaffouli, Misha Izeman, and Lolita Rozenbaum

“EXPOSING THE UNSPOKEN TRUTH: IDA B. WELLS’” —Shuning Liang, Eve Lin, Jessica Lin, May Xu, and Michele Yi


“Making America: The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965” —Lexi Chen, Rita Chen, Emily Seto, Raymond Wu, and Mia Yan

“The Stonewall Riots: A Sparked Revolution” —Lisa Chen, Melissa Lopez, and Alyssa Meczkowska

“Thurgood Marshall: Championing Changes by Breaking Racial Barriers” —Sayan Shil and Syed Tajrian


“Love and Hope: How Harvey Milk Broke the LGBT Barrier in Politics” —Julian Cunningham, Mimi Gillies, Max Kahn, Asif Sattar, and Jonathan Schneiderman


“Galvanizing America: The Spread of the Electric Telegraph” —Andy Chen.

“Breaking the Barrier of the Berlin Wall” —Kiran Duggirala

“Dragon Dix: The Woman Who Broke Barriers By Speaking Up For the Overlooked” —Isabelle Sanderson


“WASPS: The Original Avengers” —Christine Gin

“Jean-Michel Basquiat: From the Streets to High Art and Back” —Maisha Nabila

“Evolutionary Thinking” —Edmond Wong


“Benny Goodman: The 1938 Carnegie Hall Concert” —Alisha Heng


“Gloria Steinem: Breaking Barriers for the American Woman” —Miranda Lepri

“Breaking Healthcare Barriers: The Social Security Amendments of 1965” —Gallo Patel

“Balanchine: Breaking Barriers” by Elizabeth Tang


“Winning the Current War: Breaking Barriers to Establish AC as the Primary Method of Transmission” —Leo Lin

“Breaking Barriers: The Triumphs of the 54th Regiment” —Rudolph Merlin

“Clair Patterson: How a Scientist Broke Barrier to Save Us All” —Alex Tang