EWU Graduate Melinda Renken Finds Inspiration in History and New Opportunity with a Master’s Degree

Melinda Renken is a writer with a lifelong love of history and an endless curiosity about how the past can illuminate the present. This fascination has also shaped her personal journey as a person living with multiple sclerosis, an autoimmune disease that affects communication between the brain and spinal cord.Melinda Renken - EWU MS in History Graduate

Renken was born and raised in Puyallup, Washington, a suburb of Seattle located just south of Tacoma. “When I was growing up, it still had a pretty small-town feel to it,” she said, noting that there were more trees than buildings back then. “I still remember when they built the first mall and opened the first Target in town. It was a big deal,” she laughed.

It’s a place she describes in her writing as “truly magical,” situated between the mountains of the Cascade Range and the Olympic Peninsula. Renken says that entering the area’s fertile forests, “one is easily transported back in time.”

Her fondness for observing modern life through the lens of history has also made her realize how frequently important people and events are left out of historical texts, or portrayed inaccurately by authors whose approach to the subject is too narrow. She wants to do something about that.

“What I write is actually historical fiction; that’s what I’m drawn to,” Renken said. “What I decided is if I’m going to really write history, I want to do it properly.”

She enrolled in the online Master of Arts – History program at Eastern Washington University in 2022 to build on her existing knowledge and ensure the depictions in her creative work were authentic. Renken says the program has exceeded her expectations. “The personal contact with professors has just been fantastic,” she shared.

Learning online gave Renken the flexibility she needed to manage a graduate degree in history given the unpredictable nature of her MS. Individuals with this chronic condition can have physical or neurological symptoms that interrupt their daily lives, such as weakness, coordination or mobility issues, vision disturbances, or depression.

She says the structure of the program allowed her to study and complete assignments when she was feeling her best. Weekly deadlines helped her stay focused and meet course requirements with ease. “It was perfect for me,” she said. “It was really nicely developed.”

Renken graduated with her master’s in June 2024, and she does not take her achievement for granted. She knows what it means to fight through obstacles and persevere in pursuit of a dream, even when it may seem out of reach.

Writing Her Own Story Through Education

After completing high school in Puyallup, Renken first set out to study history at Carroll College in Helena, Montana. When her father passed away during her freshman year, she returned home and put thoughts of going back to college away. When she was ready to resume her education a few years later, she set her sights on culinary school instead.

“I earned a diploma in baking and pastry arts from the Art Institute of Seattle in 2009 and worked as a pastry chef decorating cakes,” she remembered. Renken enjoyed her role. It gave her a creative outlet for her skills, and her plan was to specialize in wedding cakes.

While working for a local bakery, she began to experience unusual, sometimes debilitating health issues with symptoms that didn’t quite add up. “I suspected I had [MS] at that time, but I was not yet officially diagnosed,” she said. As her symptoms got worse, her new career became untenable.

“I had to give up that job,” she said, though she was determined not to give up on herself.

Renken found administrative work in the healthcare field that was less physically demanding, and she was able to maintain a full-time schedule again. She began picking up courses at a nearby community college as well, eventually earning enough credits to transfer to Evergreen State College in Olympia.

She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English in 2013 and immediately moved on to the low-residency Master of Fine Arts program at Sierra Nevada University. There she was able to study partially online. She also began writing historical fiction and loved it.

A year into the program, she was officially diagnosed with MS. The news was bittersweet. Knowing she had been right all along was validating, but it confirmed she was living with a progressive disease. However, she finally had access to specialized services and support for people with disabilities that helped her continue moving forward.

After completing her MFA in 2016, she took some time to prioritize her health. It was becoming more difficult for her to work consistently, but she continued to write and wanted to pursue her longtime goal of earning a history degree.

Renken says finding EWU and being able to study for her master’s 100% online was a gift. “I was so excited,” she said. “Because I really did feel like a part of the program.”

A Transformative Experience

When Renken first began her coursework at EWU, she was surprised by how easy it was to connect with the faculty. “The professors were so unbelievably approachable,” she said, recalling her amazement at being able to reach out to them and get a quick response. Their expertise and support for students impressed her even more.

Renken says taking Dr. Larry Cebula’s Public History course was a transformative experience that changed her perspective on the subject as well as her career. “He’s a wonderful professor and his class had an enormous impact on me,” she confirmed.

“He made the whole entire class fun,” she said, recalling his sense of humor. His lectures and the research projects he assigned also helped her discover the wide range of venues and formats historians use to engage the public, including museum and cultural exhibits, documentaries, oral history projects and preservation efforts.

Renken most appreciated the mentoring Dr. Cebula provided. He introduced her to colleagues in his professional network, which opened the door to a new freelance career. She now works in marketing and SEO for law firms. “I’m getting paid to write,” Renken marveled. “That’s an unbelievable feeling.”

She says that without his encouragement to reach out to a new professional circle, she wouldn’t have realized she could do that type of work. “I can’t even begin to explain what that has done for me in terms of my self-esteem and my ability to dream,” she said.

Renken highlights Portfolio and Professional Development for Historians as another valuable course where she learned about standards in the field. She created an academic CV and got hands-on experience in other areas of professional practice, such as drafting project proposals and publishing in peer-reviewed journals.

In addition, Renken praises the program’s faculty for their response to a devastating life event she went through while studying for the degree. When she was halfway through the program, her former husband was diagnosed with head and neck cancer. They remained close, and she became one of his caregivers prior to his passing.

She says the kindness and understanding professors showed her during that difficult time and the grief that followed helped her continue without taking a break from her studies. It’s what he wanted, she explains.

“I know [me] finishing this degree was something that was very important to him,” she shared. Renken has dedicated her accomplishment to his memory.

Documenting the Past, Embracing the Future

Now based in Rexburg, Idaho, Renken is busy working on a set of creative and scholarly projects she developed during her time at EWU. She says the skills she gained during the master’s program have helped her become more efficient at historical research and made her a better writer.

She’s making progress on a historical novel, as well as a biographical study of former First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln. Renken is also considering another degree in the future. “I’m thinking about going on and studying law at some point,” she said with a smile. “And maybe I’ll write about it.”

Renken hopes her story can inspire those who feel stuck in circumstances that make going back to school seem impossible. She wants people facing similar health and personal obstacles to know that their dreams aren’t unattainable.

“You just have to work for them, and you have to want them,” she said, noting that her commitment to keep learning made a pathway back to employment—and on to new adventures—possible. “I have the means to get places because I have the education,” she emphasized.

Renken says that even after earning a previous bachelor’s and a master’s degree, the experience at EWU was special. She believes the master’s program in history is unique among online learning options because of its inclusive approach to the subject and to empowering students.

“Programs like this are so important because they allow for change,” she said. “It allows for dreams to become real and become accessible to so many people.”

She encourages others who face challenges in life or learning to invest in themselves through online education and set their goals high. “Absolutely go for it because it’s worth it,” she advised. “It’s worth every second of the hard work.”

Renken says studying at EWU helped her envision a future that she never thought was possible, which is the greatest reward. “I’ve experienced and learned so much about who I am. Not just as a student but as a human being, and who I want to be in the world,” she said.

“It’s just really been an amazing experience, and I’m so glad that I did it.”

Learn more about the Eastern Washington University online Master of Arts – History program.

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