By Jordan Beach
Throughout her time at Reinhardt University, Abigail Merchant ’20 immersed herself in her studies of local history. That dedication earned her a prestigious recognition.
From publisher assistance in publishing the history of Reinhardt’s African American population, to discovering the spirit of Pine Log Mountain as a student intern, Merchant made her mark on both Reinhardt University and in the scholarship of Waleska history. As a result, Merchant earned the 2020 Robert L. Driscoll Regional Studies Award.
Dr. Robert L. Driscoll served at Reinhardt University for a decade, becoming Vice President of Academic Affairs in 2006. He encouraged faculty and students to develop a connection with the local region, defined as the Etowah River Valley. After his passing in 2012, Dr. Philip Unger, assistant professor of history, invited faculty to fund awards in Driscoll’s honor to continue encouraging and begin recognizing student scholarship, service and creativity focused on the local region. Since then, awards have funded biology field studies, local business research, leadership of service projects with local public entities and charities, and historical research.
“Receiving this award is a wonderful surprise and privilege for me,” said Merchant. “Unfortunately, I did not have the opportunity to know Dr. Driscoll personally, but I am aware of his great impact at Reinhardt and his love of the local community. Being recognized as a student that exemplifies his goals and missions is a great honor.”
Professor of History Dr. Ken Wheeler first saw Merchant’s eagerness to participate in 2017 in his Town and Gown interdisciplinary studies course that covered local history, folklore and culture. The course led to a co-authored article published in the Georgia Historical Quarterly, winning the John C. Inscoe award from the Georgia Historical Society in 2018. Merchant contributed to the article and did research of her own on the ways other independent colleges in Georgia remembered their experiences of racial integration.
“She absolutely has done great work at Reinhardt,” said Wheeler. “Abby has a willingness to go ‘above and beyond’ in her coursework. She is always full of ideas, and she has gotten the most she possibly could out of her time at Reinhardt. She has been accepted into the public history M.A. degree program at the University of West Georgia, and we are sure she will be a credit to Reinhardt in the work she does there.”
This year, Merchant worked alongside Dr. Donna Little, professor of English, as a student intern to work on research of Pine Log Mountain. Merchant became one of Reinhardt’s first graduates to complete the recently added museum studies minor and contributed to one of the Funk Heritage Center’s exhibits. Her senior art thesis also focuses on local history: her black and white film photography will preserve North Georgia Mountain landscapes for future generations.
“I have had a wonderful experience with all of my professors throughout my four years at Reinhardt. The history department has been amazing. They have taught me so much and challenged me in ways I did not know was possible,” Merchant said. “The professors have supported me and helped me succeed far above my own expectations. They have nurtured my passion for history and equipped me for challenges that the world has for me as a historian.”
While much of Merchant’s notable research encompassed local history in North Georgia, her time at Reinhardt took her in many directions, including an internship with Historic Root House Museum and Gardens in Marietta, Georgia, and to Greece on a study abroad trip. Dr. Anne Good, associate professor of history, commended Merchant’s diverse interests.
“Abigail is a wonderfully curious student. When I first met her as a freshman, I thought that her only interest was the Civil War – about which she already knew much more than I,” said Good. “However, as I have gotten to know her, I have realized that she loves learning all kinds of new things.”
Merchant will continue her education at the University of West Georgia to continue studying history at a graduate level and to earn a museum studies certificate. She hopes to become a museum curator and work with document restoration for future generations.