Jasmine Utsey ’08 entered the College of Charleston thinking she wanted to major in biology, but once she took an anthropology class, she found her calling. Now, Utsey works as the program manager and liaison for business operations and facilities planning at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
In her role, Utsey oversees the business aspects of the museum, including its highly lauded restaurant and retail store.
Utsey’s experience with the Smithsonian Institution started with an unpaid internship in 2008 at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. Before that, she worked at CofC’s Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture.
Utsey recently talked with The College Today about how her years at the College set her on a path to working for the Smithsonian Institution and how she navigates a complex and rewarding career working for one of the Smithsonian’s most prominent museums.
Tell us about yourself and your path to the College of Charleston:
I’m from Greenville, South Carolina. I graduated from CofC in 2008 with a B.S. in Anthropology. I chose CofC because I wanted to remain in-state and was seeking a college in an urban setting. I considered some of the larger universities in the South, but was won over by CofC’s location, proximity to home and small class sizes. I entered the College considering a major in biology, so the programs in the sciences were initially a major draw, but that changed after I took my first anthropology course as a freshman. I fell in love with it right away and knew I wanted to work in the field in some capacity.
How did your experiences at CofC help prepare you for life and a career in the “real” world?
Academically, my professors were always very accessible and helped me navigate questions about courses, internships and graduate school. I always felt welcome to ask questions or attend office hours. Even after graduation, they were always willing to write letters of recommendation or offer advice. I felt they were truly invested in my development. A few have even visited me here at the museum.
Outside of the classroom, I learned a lot from college administrators. I worked on campus in the Office of Business Affairs, the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture and as a summer counselor for Upward Bound. I learned a lot about the College’s interdepartmental operations and developed administrative, communication and management skills. These experiences were as important as obtaining my degree. I graduated during the recession, so having previous work experience was beneficial. These skills were all transferable to my first experiences at the Smithsonian.
I was also a member of the women’s rugby club for four years and served as club president for two of those. I met some of my closest friends at here and gained invaluable leadership skills. Club leaders were invited to attend an annual leadership conference on campus, which I remember being very informative. I enjoyed liaising with college officials, advocating for funds, recruiting members and helping to introduce the sport to female athletes.
How did you find out about and land your current position?
In my current position, I’m the program specialist and business lLiaison at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. I’ve been at the NMAAHC since August 2015. I learned about my position from a former supervisor. When I started, the museum was one year out from its grand opening and my department was being organized. Prior to this position, I held other jobs within the Smithsonian at the Folklife Festival, National Museum of Natural History, Anacostia Community Museum and Smithsonian Affiliations. My very first experience at Smithsonian started with an unpaid internship in 2008 at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. In between a few of those jobs, I earned a master’s in public humanities from Brown University where I was a Fellow for the Public History of Slavery.
What are your responsibilities in your current role?
In my current role, I oversee the business programs operations. Our business programs include our restaurant Sweet Home Café (which was a James Beard Awards semi-finalist for Best New Restaurant), and the museum retail store. In preparation for the grand opening, I oversaw coordination of product development for the store, menu development for the cafe and a variety of other building operations requirements. New products may be developed when new exhibitions open, or if a new object is acquired. I work closely with our museum’s leadership, curators and stakeholders to ensure business program offerings align with our mission and reflect our exhibitions. I also oversee a variety of other project management activities related to facilities planning.
What do you like most about your job?
I enjoy working in a field that I love and at an institution that makes such a huge impact on a global scale. I was initially drawn to work in museums because they provide access to knowledge – free of charge – to whomever walks through the doors. The sciences, arts, culture and history are so important, and museums are a place where all of that information is available to whoever seeks it out. I’m grateful that I get to play a small role in that. Having a role in the grand opening of a national museum was an amazing experience. In my job, I find myself experiencing moments in real time, that I know will be looked back upon as history making, and I catch my breath. It’s surreal.
What were some of the internships and professional development experiences you had as a student that helped prepare you for a career?
I completed the College’s historical archaeology field school, which provided hands-on experience conducting archaeological excavations at plantation sites in Charleston. I also attended a class trip to St. Helena’s Island and the Penn Center for a cultural heritage preservation workshop focusing on the Gullah Geechee culture. I also worked at the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture.
What advice do you have for students interested in similar careers?
Museums need candidates with a variety of skills, so be willing to learn new skills that can be transferable. Positions like curators and researchers are needed, but museums require much more than that to function (i.e. engineers, accountants, lawyers, educators). Be open to exploring different career paths within museums. Also, just as in any field, networking is very important and don’t underestimate the value of volunteering, internships or informational interviews.
What lesson or piece of advice from a professor or staff member at the College sticks with you to this day?
I took Professor Tim Carmichael’s introductory history course as one of my general education requirements. He was always very encouraging and suggested that I consider becoming a history major. Though I didn’t major in history, he really boosted my confidence in my writing and analysis skills. About a year or two after taking his class, he suggested I take the course of visiting professor Darlene Clark Hine who was teaching a course on African American women’s history. It was one of the best pieces of advice I have ever received. The class was amazing and required me to really challenge myself as a researcher and writer. It exposed me to new possibilities for myself and my future.