Caroline Gerdes grew up in Mandeville, but says she feels closely connected to her family’s roots in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans.
Gerdes graduates this month from the LSU Manship School of Mass Communication. In June she begins a new project with ties to her heritage.
With a National Geographic Young Explorers Grant, she will be collecting oral histories of people who lived in the Ninth Ward any time between 1920 and 1960.
Gerdes’ background as a journalism major with a minor in history and her connections to the New Orleans area inspired her to apply for a prestigious grant from National Geographic to study family histories in a part of New Orleans known for its concentration of communities of different ethnic backgrounds, what Gerdes calls “clusters of immigrant boroughs.”
“A lot of families in America have an immigrant past,” said Gerdes, who in 2011 received an internship at National Geographic in Washington, D.C. Working there in the areas of marketing and social media gave her the opportunity to hear live speakers who were featured in the magazine.
“I heard people who were globally minded and who cared about the planet,” she said. “Everybody was passionate about their projects.”
When Gerdes returned from Washington, she decided to develop the project studying families in the Ninth Ward and to apply for a Young Explorers Grant, available for people 18 to 25.
The application process is long and involved and begins with a preapplication, which Gerdes submitted in October. In February, she received an email saying that her preapplication was accepted and that she could submit an application for the grant.
“In March, I found out that I got the grant,” she said. “The grants are like seed money to introduce young people to the world of conservation and exploration.”
According to the National Geographic website, Young Explorers grants vary in amount depending on the significance of the project, though most range between $2,000 and $5,000. Because of National Geographic policies, Gerdes did not reveal the amount of her grant, but she said that hers was on the lower end of the amounts given.
Gerdes’ connections to the Ninth Ward are deep. Her father grew up and attended Holy Cross High School there. Both of his parents also grew up in the neighborhood. Gerdes’ paternal grandmother, Yvonne Gerdes, 91, is of French, Irish and German heritage.
“They were in a community that held very close to their immigrant roots,” Gerdes said. Even though they were both born in America, they knew members of their families who remembered the “old country.”
Gerdes’ maternal grandmother, Charlotte John, 86, grew up in Germany. Her maternal grandfather, a Lebanese American, was originally from Sulphur.
Although both of her grandfathers are deceased, Gerdes is very close to her grandmothers. It is their stories that led her to the project.
Gerdes hopes to interview as many people as she can this summer. “Once I complete the project, National Geographic and I will work out what I can do with the information,” she said.
Gerdes has her own blog, the Old Country Blog at http://cgerdes.blogspot.com. She will also be a regular blogger on NewsWatch, the National Geographic daily news blog (http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com).
“I will update about once a week over the summer, things about New Orleans life, snippets from the interviews,” Gerdes said. “I want to represent Louisiana as accurately as possible. I want to give snippets of New Orleans life and culture. I am very excited to get the city known a little better, to explore on my own and get to know about my family while doing it.”
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