College of LAS « Illinois

Graduating with a deep love for history

Courtney Cain describes earning her bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degree from Illinois

Courtney Cain will graduate from Illinois with a bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degree in history.
Courtney Cain will graduate from Illinois with a bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degree in history.
Courtney Cain is a future three-time graduate of Illinois with a bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degree in history. After she officially graduates in August, she will be teaching at Lake Forest College as an assistant professor of history and African American studies. She spoke with Meaghan Downs at Illinois Public Affairs as part of a larger story about graduates describing their time at Illinois—the challenges, triumphs, and places on campus they'll miss most.

  • “It’s a weird, bittersweet moment. The road to the doctorate been the longest seven years of my life. Definitely a crazy shift to think about coming here at the age of 17 and then now, being 30 and leaving with three degrees.


  • “I knew I loved history for a long time. I thought I was going to be a lawyer, but I took part in an internship through the Graduate College called the Summer Research Opportunities program. That’s what opened my eyes to the potential of getting a Ph.D. and doing history as a full-time job. My dissertation looks at the links between Haiti and Chicago for a 250-year window. My family is actually from Haiti; my parents migrated from Haiti to Chicago in the 1960s. So this project is personal as well.


  • “[Illinois history professor emeritus James Barrett] told me that he would more than likely retire before I finished and we agreed that he would see me all the way through. And he has. I’m his final student that’s going to cross the finish line. That’s a really big deal for me. I will also be my co-chair, Erik McDuffie's, first doctoral student to graduate. After working with him since my undergrad days, this is also a special moment for him and I as well. Jim's last student and Erik's first student. I imagine the defense itself, I’m going to cry whenever they tell me I officially receive the doctor title. They will probably be tears of relief.


  • “But the hooding will be emotional just because it’s the pinnacle, it’s the last thing with the department. To have this be the final time Jim does this with a student is a huge deal and I am deeply honored.


  • “My biggest piece of advice is not to let anyone tell you there’s nothing you can do with humanities majors. I’m a firm believer that history is important because you know where you came from and because it teaches your critical skills. We are living in a time that’s very much defined by the need to be a critical thinker, to analyze things and be able to come to reasonable conclusions about things you read or see.


  • "[Being a history major] helped me rethink the world and myself.”

Meaghan Downs, Illinois Public Affairs

Related Topics

  • History
  • African American Studies