History, philosophy graduate Ashley Maempa set to pursue PhD in Iowa

by | May 13, 2024

Maempa plans to study under noted historian Colin Gordon, author of “Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City.”
History and philosophy graduate Ashley Maempa

Ashley Maempa earned bachelor’s degrees in history and philosophy with a minor in French and a certificate from the Pierre Laclede Honors College. (Photo by Derik Holtmann)

Ashley Maempa’s curiosity is easily piqued in academic settings. She has always been an engaged and motivated student, eager to learn new things and wrestle with new ideas.

But one class Maempa never really looked forward to during her childhood education was history. Too many of the notable characters of the past or the supposedly key events she was asked to learn about or memorize seemed disconnected from her daily experience.

It wasn’t until around the time Maempa was starting college at the University of Missouri–St. Louis in 2020 that she started to realize how much history could teach her about the modern world in which she lives.

“I was really motivated by understanding a lot of the political turmoil that I was seeing,” Maempa said. “I’m particularly interested in looking at Midwest Black and immigrant history. After everything that was going on in 2020, I started seeing history as sort of the means of understanding the problems that we have and better understanding what we can do about them.”

Maempa came to UMSL on a Chancellor’s Scholarship and was studying philosophy and English with plans of following a path to law school after graduating from Fort Zumwalt South High School in St. Charles County. But her curiosity led her to change course, and she found herself adding history as her second major – along with philosophy – during her sophomore year.

This weekend, Maempa took part in the first of two commencement ceremonies for graduates of the College of Arts and Sciences after finishing both degrees and a minor in French. She earned Latin honors and a certificate from the Pierre Laclede Honors College.

In August, she will begin pursuing a PhD in history at the University of Iowa.

Maempa feels privileged to be studying under Professor Colin Gordon, a prominent historian whose research is primarily focused on the history of public policy in the United States. He has authored four books, including “Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City,” published in 2008 and which has an accompanying web project.

She wrestled with that book at several points during her college coursework.

“It’s a really short but impactful book that shows, using geographic information system data and statistical data, the impact of segregationist policies in St. Louis, city and county,” Maempa said. “A lot of redlining and a lot of the depopulation basically led to white flight and a lot of disinvestment in the community.”

The book aligns with her own goals for diving into the past.

“She is very much a forward-looking historian,” said Ed Munn Sanchez, dean of the Pierre Laclede Honors College and Maempa’s advisor. “The work she’s going to do at Iowa is fundamentally focused on issues like gentrification, and in St. Louis, she’s going to look at how we’ve gotten ourselves into the situation that we’re in with a fairly racially divided city. What were the urban planning policies that led to it? What is the history of urbanization?

“She wants to look specifically at St. Louis, and she’s interested in it for the sake of then coming in and giving the foundation for making positive changes for the city.”

Maempa’s experiences at UMSL and in the Honors College helped crystalize why history was the field that best fit her interests.

She particularly enjoyed an Honors College course taught by Associate Teaching Professor Rob Wilson that allowed her to step outside UMSL’s campus and engage with the wider community. Last year, she and her classmates worked with the city of Florissant and Historic Florissant Inc., a nonprofit focused on historic preservation, to design a series of public history projects. They had a chance to use GIS as they created a drivable tour of more than 80 historic properties.

Back on campus, Maempa found herself challenged and engaged by several history courses taught by Teaching Professor Peter Acsay. They gave her a taste of archival research and historiographical work that she expects to do much more of while pursuing her doctorate.

“I found that I really enjoyed that, so that was pretty influential in my decision,” she said.

Maempa is just as grateful to faculty members such as Billy Dunaway in the Department of Philosophy and Violaine White in the Department of Language and Cultural Studies for helping refine her thinking and helping her engage with different topics. She noted a seminar Dunaway led on the philosophy of law and a course White led on the impact of vacation culture and tourism in the Francophone world as being memorable and impactful.

“I feel that a lot of my professors have been really willing to invest extra time in me,” Maempa said. “I’ve definitely appreciated the small class sizes. I’ve had a lot of good opportunities, and as a historian and as somebody who does St. Louis history specifically, UMSL has access to a lot of really good local history resources that have been really helpful. I’ve never run out of projects.”

Munn believes Maempa – whose list of scholarships also included the R. Gene Burns Scholarship, the Marty Hendin UMSL Rivermen Scholarship and the Julie and Robin Kerry Memorial Scholarship – would have been successful no matter the direction her interests led her.

“She was thinking she was going to go to law school and she was thinking of going to get a PhD in philosophy before she realized that history was her real calling,” he said. “None of it was even vaguely implausible. She’s just really engaged. She’s been engaged since the day she got here. She’s really well prepared. I think you see smart kids, you see motivated kids and you see kids that are socially engaged, but having someone that does all three is really the total package.”

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Steve Walentik

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