A UNK student’s migration from wrestling to research
Parker Witthuhn came to the University of Nebraska at Kearney to study history and political science. But more than that, the Story City, Iowa, native came to wrestle for the Lopers.
“Wrestling and being on a team is in my blood,” he said.
That made suffering a career-ending injury, fracturing his L5 vertebra and undergoing surgery in 2017, very difficult. Witthuhn struggled with the loss of his ability to compete on the mat and suddenly having “way more time on my hands,” he said.
His UNK wrestling coaches suggested this was “an opportunity to push myself academically, and that I should throw myself into my schoolwork to see what I could accomplish,” Witthuhn said.
He explained his passion for learning spans many fields, but his interest is piqued most when studying history and political science.
“I love diving into topics and finding similarities to things going on in the world today or finding roots and causes of current events,” he said. “Finding obscure facts and being able to trace the fallout from those events all the way up to today — that’s super fun.”
Witthuhn sought guidance from his teacher and mentor, Jeff Wells, Ph.D., of the history department in UNK’s College of Arts & Sciences. Aware of Witthuhn’s passion for history, Jeff encouraged him to get involved in UNK’s undergraduate research program.
“I hadn’t considered my writing good enough for publication until then and never really considered doing research until Dr. Wells showed me all the opportunities,” Witthuhn said.
Undergraduate research is highly supported and encouraged at UNK, according to Charles Bicak, Ph.D., senior vice chancellor for academic and student affairs.
“We have a strong emphasis on students doing independent scholarly work,” he said. “It’s a distinguishing part of the UNK experience.”
Matthew Bice, Ph.D., director of undergraduate research and associate dean of graduate studies, echoed these comments, saying research projects are student-driven, allowing a project to capture the interest of the student.
“The undergraduate research experience provides transferable skills that transition into all aspects of life, making it a lifelong experience,” he said.
Under Bice’s direction, students present their research and scholarly work at UNK Undergraduate Student Research Day each spring. Wells and Bice both encouraged Witthuhn to consider a history-writing project to present.
Bicak was walking through the UNK union one day when he began talking with UNK alumna Carolyn Snyder, Ph.D. He enthusiastically told her about the campus’s annual day of student research presentations, which piqued her interest.
“During my career as a professor and librarian, I wrote a number of articles and a book related to libraries,” she said. “As I progressed, it was important to do research and writing. That importance is still present as students pursue careers, but even more so in today’s world of shortened words, sentences and text messages.”
Already familiar with giving back to UNK – Snyder had established an endowed scholarship fund to benefit student library workers in honor of her mother, who also graduated from UNK — she decided to create the Wagner Family Writing Awards, which are given annually at the UNK Undergraduate Student Research Day, through a gift to the University of Nebraska Foundation.
“Naming the award after our Wagner family was very special to me” Snyder said. “My nephew Luke Wagner has joined me in the awarding of funds. I am so proud that it’s a family legacy that will continue through our scholarships and awards.”
The Wagner Family Writing Awards provide a total of $1,000 per year to students who place first, earning $750, and second, earning $250.
The award draws many applicants, “which sends a signal that students see the importance of research and writing,” Snyder said.
While he was still some time away from writing his paper for Undergraduate Student Research Day, Witthuhn had begun to get a feel for what he wanted to research.
“I have always found World War I fascinating,” he said. “2018 marked the 100-year anniversary of the end of WWI, and there hadn’t been much research done on the students and staff that served from Kearney State Normal School. I decided this would be a really great topic that was relevant.”
Witthuhn began research for “WWI: Soldiers of Kearney State Normal School” with the assistance of Laurinda Weisse, archivist and assistant professor at C.T. Ryan Library, who helped him unearth documents.
“There were war letters from the students who served, newspaper articles from the Antelope student newspaper and Kearney Hub during the war, and primary documents for the project,” Witthuhn said. “I’d already be deeply engrossed in an interesting war letter or article, and Ms. Weisse would come rushing in saying she found something else new that I should see.
“These documents, including mud- and blood-soaked letters, hadn’t been written about or analyzed fully yet, were so intriguing. I was hooked and loved doing the research in the archives.”
Witthuhn’s dream job is to be a historian and to teach and research at a university, in large part after working with Weisse in the UNK archives. Weisse says that’s the best part of her job.
“Discovering, seeing, reading and even feeling primary source documents — there’s a lot of power in that,” she said. “I love my opportunities to work with departments and students and make our history come alive.”
Weisse helped Witthuhn connect his life as a UNK student to those here 100 years ago. “Making connections for people through history helps tell their own story,” Weisse said.
Witthuhn explained how he grew emotionally, connecting to the Kearney Normal School soldiers and their stories.
“It’s hard to imagine that students my age were leaving our campus to go to war. One soldier in particular, Clarence Olsen, became very real to me,” he said. “Clarence’s brother, Henry, was also a student at Kearney Normal but was not sent to fight. Henry received many letters from Clarence while he fought in France during the final phase of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive.”
Witthuhn details in his research paper how Clarence Olsen, hours after penning a letter to Henry on Oct. 28, 1918, was hit by an exploding artillery shell and a gas grenade while going over his trench to advance toward the German line. The incident shattered Olsen’s legs, and the gas infected his wounds and caused partial paralysis in his arms.
“Clarence’s injuries caused both of his legs to be amputated in the field evacuation hospital before he was moved to Base Hospital No. 49,” Witthuhn said. “That hospital was actually nicknamed ‘Nebraska’s Hospital’ because it was created and staffed by members of the University of Nebraska’s Medical College at Omaha.
“The interesting and intriguing facts just kept coming. What started out as a project I was encouraged to do became a passion that I pursued with earnest.”
Witthuhn completed his research and paper, submitted his final copy for consideration for the Wagner Family Writing Awards, and then presented it last spring at UNK Undergraduate Student Research Day.
“It was an amazing opportunity and one that helped me grow incredibly as a researcher and writer,” he said. “While at the awards ceremony, the winners of the Wagner Family Writing Awards were being announced. I noted to myself how great that $250 second-place prize money would be. Little did I know my name would be announced as the winner of the award and a cash prize of $750.”
Snyder had the opportunity to read Witthuhn’s paper and was impressed.
“He had such a well-researched and captivating paper,” she said. “From utilizing the archives and library, to solid writing — it is what this award is all about.”
Witthuhn acknowledged that his experience opened his mind to his potential for creating scholarly writing and conducting research.
“The history department, the archivist, Carolyn Wagner Snyder — so many contributed to my growth and accomplishment,” he said.
And further, the award money paid for his books for the upcoming semester. “For that and more, I am really grateful,” Witthuhn said.
Witthuhn’s paper may be found at openspaces.unk.edu/undergraduate-research-journal/vol23/iss1/12/
“We love what we did,” Sharon Holyoke said. “And we just hope we leave the world a better place than we started.”