California State University, Fullerton

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Shaping Historians and Careers

History Honor Society Celebrates Three Decades of Impact and Achievement

Sept. 18, 2012

Wylie Aitken

Wylie Aitken as a Cal State Fullerton student in 1962.

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Wylie Aitken was so well prepared by his Cal State Fullerton history professors that he didn’t even need to complete a bachelor’s degree to win a full scholarship to Marquette University Law School more than 50 years ago.
“My favorite professor was Warren Beck,” Aitken said about the late emeritus professor of history. “I was one of his students at Santa Ana College when he was recruited to work at Orange County State College, Cal State Fullerton today, so I followed him. He was a mesmerizing teacher who would make history come alive. It was Beck, Giles Brown and Larry de Graaf who encouraged me to apply to have a chapter of the national history honor society, Phi Alpha Theta, on campus.”
So, in 1962, the CSUF chapter, Theta-Pi, was chartered by its founding members: the late William B. Langsdorf, founding president of Cal State Fullerton and  professor of history; de Graaf, founding faculty member and emeritus professor of history; Brown, emeritus associate vice president for academic affairs, dean of graduate studies and professor of history; Ernest W. Toy, founding and emeritus librarian and associate professor of history; Beck; Aitken and others.
Aitken, who has become a nationally recognized consumer advocate trial lawyer, said that given the history department’s strong foundation, outstanding professors and commitment to student success, he is not surprised that Theta-Pi has again been named the top student history honor society in the nation.
“What got us accepted for a chapter in the first place was the university’s quality of the faculty — the best and brightest history professors, who built a solid foundation,” said Aitken, a founding partner of Aitken, Aitken & Cohn, a personal injury law firm in Santa Ana. “For me, it was an amazing student experience that turned out to be an incredibly great educational opportunity that helped get me into law school early, when I was 20.”
Today, Theta-Pi is celebrating its latest best chapter award, for the 31st year in a row, by the national Phi Alpha Theta History Honor Society.
“Dr. Gordon Morris Bakken, my co-adviser, and I are extremely proud of our chapter members – all 1,850 of them since 1962,” said Jochen Burgtorf, chair and professor of history and Theta-Pi adviser. “Many of them have gone on to careers in academia. For example, Dr. Don Stelluto now is at the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study, Professor Brenda Farrington now is at Chapman University and Dr. Susanne Gaskins and Dr. Vanessa Gunther now are teaching here at CSUF. Some of them have gone on to illustrious careers in law, like Wylie Aitken. Many of our recent graduates are enrolled in top Ph.D. programs, like Gavin Fort, who is at Northwestern University. Some of our alumni have had, or still are having, distinguished careers in the U.S. Armed Forces, like Army Major Robert Medina.”
Besides being the best history honor society chapter in the nation, Theta-Pi also produces the best student history journal, the Welebaethan. The journal’s 2011 edition recently won the Phi Alpha Theta History Journal Award for the 25th consecutive year.
Among the most important skills students in Theta-Pi learn “are giving and receiving constructive criticism and teamwork in a community of scholars,” Burgtorf said. “Our chapter is an exciting place to be.”
Indeed, say its alumni.
“It's great to hear that Theta-Pi is continuing its tradition of excellence,” said alumnus Keith Pacholl (B.A. history ’90, M.A. history ’92), who earned a doctorate in history from UC Riverside in 2004 and is an associate professor at the University of West Georgia. “An important reason for my success was my experience at CSUF, where I had the pleasure of being part of Theta-Pi. I had just begun work on my upper-division courses when I first learned about Theta-Pi, and I remember being impressed by the activities and energy of the group. Dr. Bakken deserves much of the credit for Theta-Pi's success. His tireless efforts and organization created an atmosphere of excellence, and his encouragement of student involvement provided many opportunities for history majors to learn more about our profession.”
Pacholl credits his membership and service as Theta-Pi president in 1992 for “helping pave the way for my career as a history professor.”
He said his history professors “made an impact on me, and I believe that my interaction with students today is the result of my experience with the history faculty at CSUF. I also learned more about the nature of the history profession. I attended the Phi Alpha Theta regional conference in the early ’90s and had the opportunity to comment on another student’s paper. I attended the national conference in Chicago in 1992 and presented a paper for the first time. It was nerve-wracking, but thanks to the guidance of Dr. Bakken and several others, I was able to survive the experience.”

A more recent alumna, Jacqueline Alvarino (B.A. history ’08), called her involvement in Theta-Pi “an intellectually stimulating environment for students seeking advice on their current research interests.”
The honor society, she added, “provided students with various extracurricular activities, such as its monthly chapter meetings and the regional conferences. I found the conferences to be especially important.… More often than not, these meetings inspired us to take new directions in our research and explore other fields of academia.”

Theta-Pi’s 2011-12 officers, who led the chapter to its 31st national win, were Jamie Wharton, president; Nicole Arnold, vice president; Albert Ybarra, treasurer; Charles Eggleston, secretary; and Shane Austin, at-large member. Under their reign, Burgtorf said, the chapter initiated 76 new members; hosted an on-campus regional conference, featuring 90 student paper presentations from 13 California colleges and universities; and celebrated its 50th anniversary.

By: Mimi Ko Cruz, 657-278-7586

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