Conserving History: James Eiler’s Common Application Essay

My feet pounded against the asphalt as I ran up the hill for the fifth time that hot May morning. As I reached the top, my eyes shifted between the map in my hand and the sea of graves in front of me. Striding forward, I began scanning rows and columns for the flags that mark the grave of a veteran. 

The volunteers would arrive in half an hour; by then I would need to have divided the cemetery into twelve sections. Worried that I wouldn’t be ready in time, I rushed to gather all of the maps, clipboards, paper, and pencils. I had forgotten my sunglasses. I worried that I would not complete the maps in time, but a full ten minutes before the first volunteer arrived I had finished. Right on time they arrived and despite the wind’s efforts snatch the papers from my hands, I succeeded in handing out a labeled copy of the map to each group. The Eleven volunteers and four veterans from the American Legion began working on their assigned areas of the cemetery. Over the next four hours, I directed volunteers to gravesites, answered questions, and oversaw the photographing of two hundred headstones in the cemetery. The volunteers followed the Legionnaires from grave to grave, writing down memories, preserving them on paper. When every headstone was photographed and every note shilled filled with history, I gathered them all and thanked them for their work.

I don’t really believe in the idea of one moment determining the course of one’s life, but if I had to pick one day that sparked my passion for history it would be the Christmas when my parents gave me the book War: 5,000 years of Military History, by R.G. Grant. I read that book, again and again; studying and analyzing the information on each page. I carried it everywhere with me to the point of reducing it to a pile of tattered paper held together by the threads of its binding. The most interesting parts of that book were the pages devoted to Germany. I was so interested in Germany and its history at such a young age in part because of my family’s history: my father’s family immigrated from the Ruhr Valley, near modern-day Frankfurt. As a child I loved listening to my father and grandfather talk with each other in German. Both my Father and my Grandfather speak German and spent significant time in Germany. From a very early age, I discussed history with my Grandfather and continue to do so. He often recommends books, most recently, “Germany, a Nation in Its Time.” 

In eighth grade, my teacher assigned me a month-long research project. I chose the Kingdom of Prussia as my topic. In the course of the project, I interviewed my future German teacher. I continued my research in German history when I wrote a paper on the Franco-Prussian War during the summer before Junior year. 

In the second half of High School, I began to look for ways to use history to help my community. My community had little need for German history in particular, but I was able to find a project where my passion for history could be useful. The local American Legion had long wanted to record member’s memories and make them available to the public. So, I decided to create digital maps of cemeteries for my Eagle Scout Project. That Summer I spent three days at Hillside Cemetery and half a dozen at three other cemeteries in Norwich. I founded a nonprofit to widen the scope of my efforts, and plan to lead Boy Scout troops and American Legions all over Vermont in mapping their own cemeteries. 

Since I first received that book, my interest in history has matured and has led me to make important contributions to preserving local history and making it accessible to the wider community. In pursuing German history, I hope to combine benefiting my community with important scholarship. 


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