Julia Ornelas-Higdon ’02
Associate Professor of History,
What aspect of teaching do you find most rewarding as an Associate Professor of History at CSU Channel Islands?
California State University Channel Islands
Most educators would say that the best part of their job is the students and I’m no different. Our campus is a Hispanic Serving Institution and we’re the newest CSU. I get to work with incredibly sharp, hard working students, many of whom are the first generation to attend college. They want to be there and are putting in the work. Since we’re a small university, our classes are intimate and it’s easier to facilitate community building. My classes max out at 40 which means I get to know my students and follow them as they progress to graduation. That’s a joy.
What do you find to be the most effective mode of teaching in a classroom that challenges your students to think critically?
I think for many history educators it’s primary source analysis. I give students a document and let them critically examine it to learn about the past. In addition, I use culturally relevant pedagogy that includes stories of communities which are often excluded from the broader narrative of US history, to which my students identify. I include histories where they see people from their cultural backgrounds in the textbook or lesson plan. I like to use our community as a history lab, and over the years I have found it effective to take my students to historical sites in Ventura County and beyond.
How do you approach teaching American History in a divisive political climate?
This has gotten a lot harder since I started teaching 15 years ago. I aim to cultivate a respectful learning environment and practice empathetic listening so that students feel comfortable coming as they are with whatever polarizing ideas they might have. I tell my students that studying US history as it happened requires us to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. When I encounter pushback on the realities of American history, rather than see these as instances where we might become divided, I try to reframe them as opportunities for learning.
Your research focuses on the intersections of race, agricultural, and labor histories. Can you tell us more about your family history and its connection to your research?
Both of my grandfathers and numerous other family members were Braceros, Mexican contract laborers, in the fifties and sixties, and I grew up in a family of storytellers. I heard stories of their journeys to the US and working the crops. As an undergraduate I started learning these histories and exploring them on my own, asking my grandfather questions such as, “What was it like when you crossed the border?” I’ve carried that with me in my own research. As a graduate student, I found myself naturally curious about histories related to agriculture and race, and I wanted to learn more specifically about the groups that had been marginalized within US history.
Your first book about the 19th century history of California’s storied wine industry, The Grapes of Conquest: Race, Labor, and the Industrialization of California Wine, 1769-1920, will be published this fall. What was the inspiration for you to write about this subject and why was it important to you?
When my mom suggested looking at Chinese workers who built tunnels in Napa and Sonoma, I was intrigued. I discovered that Chinese workers, as well as California Natives, Germans, Mexicans, and working-class Americans, were all incredibly important to the wine industry. To me, this became a story about conquest, cultural change in California, and about how race and citizenship were constructed and remade across Mexican, Spanish, and American governance. As I wrote the book, I found myself challenging contemporary assumptions about wine. We think of California wine as an elite product. It’s associated with refined people and with whiteness. The reality is that the roots of the industry are contrary to that perception and are found in diverse working class populations. That was quite radical for me to explore.
While you were a student at College Prep, was there a particular class that sparked your interest in pursuing history in college and your career?
I remember being so inspired by History Teacher, Katherine Gumbert. I took a seminar with her on the history of world religions and we had the most insightful conversations about world history. The culminating project for the class was to design a research project on a religion. This included reading the sacred texts from that particular religion, visiting a house of worship, if it had one, and looking at its historical roots. I found the research process fascinating. I chose the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints since I grew up in a community with a lot of Mormons, and I wanted to know more about my neighbors.
I also took a class with now retired science teachers, Jack Coakley and Dr. Barzilay. The class focused on ethical issues in biology and medicine. I’m not a science person, but that class was so captivating. It made us ask hard questions and look at problems from different perspectives. It questioned our assumptions and values in a productive way. I think the common thread through all of my classes was the emphasis on thinking, research, and writing—as a rigorous intellectual process where there’s no right or wrong answer. It begins with curiosity and asking questions before going to the sources to find answers.
Is there an aspect of your studies at College Prep that shaped how you work with students?
I organize classes so that my students can learn from each other. Learning happens in the classroom and in individual conversations with me and their peers. These are College Prep pedagogies that I have carried with me through graduate school and now as a university professor.