Inspired at Mason: Alumni Spotlight

Inspired at Mason: Alumni Spotlight

Storytelling has always been an integral part of Meg Nicholas’s cultural and personal traditions. In a phone conversation she had with the George Mason University Folklore Program’s graduate student, Stephanie Aitken, she revealed that it was not something she chose. For the Lenape, a storyteller is a cultural role that one fills, and it’s not an easy one. When her grandmother told her mother that Nicholas was a storyteller, Nicholas knew it was a responsibility not to be taken lightly. 

Nicholas discovered folklore studies in 2005 when she was pursuing her undergraduate degree at George Mason University. She took a folklore class on a whim. In that class, she suddenly realized that storytelling, the folklore she had been practicing her whole life, was part of an academic discipline. And she fell in love with folklore studies. As luck would have it, Mason’s Folklore Program’s founder, Prof. Margaret Yocom was developing a master’s program for folklore studies around this time. Nicholas had never planned to be a graduate student. She had lived her life up until then considering learning to be an organic process; it was an achievement enough to be the first in her family to go to graduate school. Nicholas commented that she chose folklore studies because “I can’t think of anything else I would rather do.” and even her mom acknowledged “You are meant to be doing this.”

During her time in the folklore program, Nicholas took every available folklore class. From bodylore to sense of place to a special course on contemporary legends. The first graduate-level course she remembers taking was on Narratives of the Spirit World, taught by Prof. Yocom. Since Nicholas was focusing on public sector folklore, she also took more practically oriented classes that fell outside of the English department at the time, such as those focused on festivals, museums and archives, and fiscal and budget planning. One museum studies class she took introduced her to important United States legislation and included learning about theory and exhibit styles. When recounting her experience with the class, Nicholas said “It was probably the best training I could have asked for going into the work I later did.” 

Additionally, during her time at Mason, Nicholas was the graduate assistant for what is now the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Office at Mason. In this position, she focused on incorporating Indigenous student issues and events into university life. One of her duties was organizing a week of events, that included things such as a dance workshop, to celebrate and acknowledge Native Heritage Month. Though these events were important to Nicholas, she wanted this work of researching Indigenous folklore and advocating for Indigenous issues to be valued all year round.

Nicholas also took full advantage of the resources afforded by being a part of the Folklore Program. She connected with local folklorists. And reflecting on her time in the program, Nicholas commented that “you felt the sense of community of folklorists in the DC area”. Wherever you were, there were folklorists. In 2008, Nicholas traveled with her cohort of folklore studies students to interact with more folklorists at the national annual American Folklore Society (AFS) conference. She described the experience: “ I was so excited to be at my first AFS annual meeting. I packed my days with every session I could attend, almost forgetting to build in time for meals and rest. Honestly, I’m still kind of like that at AFS – I want to see everything!”

Nicholas and her cohort at the American Folklore Society annual meeting in Louisville, KY in 2008. Nicholas pictured center back. 

After she graduated with a master’s degree in folklore studies in 2009, which at the time was in the Master's in Interdisciplinary Studies program, Nicholas worked at the Accokeek Foundation. The Accokeek Foundation is a non-profit organization that partners with the National Park Service in Piscataway Park to steward the park and educate people on its Indigenous history.  Nicholas was introduced to the foundation when taking a course at Mason in historic preservation. At the time, her instructor Wilton Corkern was the President of the Accokeek Foundation. Nicholas remarks on her experience: “In addition to setting me up for success when I went to work for the Foundation, [the class] also laid the groundwork for some of the work I’ve been doing here at the Library [of Congress].” Nicholas’s position was as an administrative and development coordinator. 

Some years later, Nicholas started working at Tribal Tech, a management and services company that works with various entities, as a government contractor for the Department of Energy’s Office of Indian Energy and Policy Program. She enjoyed the opportunity to travel in this position from Virginia to North Dakota to Alaska. Though the position was not related to her studies, Nicholas could draw upon skills she learned in the Folklore Program. For example, she learned about corresponding with communities, documenting, and using storytelling as a vehicle for problem-solving in Prof. Debra Lattanzi Shutika’s class Sense of Place. 

Nicholas enjoyed these jobs, but she dreamed of a position where she could engage with people, do her own research, and be involved in producing public events. However, in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, jobs were hard to come by. One day in 2022, she got an alert from Publore, the listserv for US public folklorists, for a position at the American Folklife Center (AFC) at the Library of Congress for a folklife specialist. 

The American Folklife Center is “Designated by the U.S. Congress as the national center for folklife documentation and research, the Center meets its mission by stewarding archival collections, creating public programs, and exchanging knowledge and expertise.” Nicholas knew this position was meant for her. As a folklife specialist, she would be helping the AFC meet its mission by maintaining the reading room’s archives, creating public programs, and exchanging knowledge to foster community participation and diverse expressions of culture. 

She was so excited to apply for this job that she spent three hours reworking her resume! Nicholas was so determined to work for the AFC that  she also applied for an administrative position. After she turned in her application, she waited and waited to hear back. Finally, she was invited for an interview and then offered the position of folklife specialist. 

Nicholas taking a selfie on her first day of work. 

After a little more than six months in her new position, Nicholas is still learning the ropes. She is utilizing her folklore master’s degree to accomplish her goals of helping Indigenous communities document their own folklore and reindigenize previously archived folklore, now throughout the year! Nicholas is working on a project researching how wild rice appears in the archival collections of the AFC and other reading rooms in the Library of Congress. From these materials, Nicholas is searching for Indigenous narratives about foodways related to wild rice. She has narrowed her topic to foodway narratives for wild rice in the Potomac region in Southern Maryland. When she is done, she will hand her research over to a local non-profit that is restoring wild rice in Prince George and Charles Counties. 

When asked about what advice she has for future folklorists, Nicholas recommended that they should be as diverse in their interests as possible and be open to other people’s worldviews. Nicholas continues to be a storyteller, but in her new position, she helps other people tell their stories. Thank you Meg Nicholas for letting your story be a part of our program’s legacy. We are excited to see what you do in the future! 

Nicholas featured right with other American Folklife Center Staff pose with Dr. Gilman’s (far right) public folklore class during a visit to the Center in Fall 2023

Article Written by Stephanie Aitken