World War II studies graduate looks to bring new perspective to the past

ASU master's student Gerald Sayles III

Gerald Sayles III is graduating this semester with his master's in World War II studies.

Editor’s note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable fall 2022 graduates.

Gerald Sayles III has been interested in many aspects of World War II including the social conditions in the U.S. at the time and various myths about the war that have defined an entire generation of Americans.

His interest led him to enrolling in the online master’s in World War II studies program at the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies at Arizona State University in partnership with the National World War II Museum.

I wanted to channel that interest into something, but I knew I was missing some intricate parts to the war, so I looked for somewhere that can fill those gaps,” said Sayles. “Admittedly, that strong desire that I had coming into this program has grown after every course I have taken over this past year.”

While in the program, Sayles wrote a paper on the National World War II Memorial for a memory and monuments project. In his paper, he deconstructed collective memorialization of the war and added nuanced insights into the importance of individual lived experiences of the conflict.

“I wondered how a single monument could speak for the diverse experiences of World War II veterans,” Sayles said. “Understandably, this is a very admired generation for their bravery and sacrifice, but going into this project I thought of the minority soldiers that had very different experiences than their white counterparts. 

“I thought of why these soldiers went to war, for social progression in the United States, and I wanted to see how well that was represented in the memorial. What I found was that although the monument does well in capturing and displaying the importance of the war, it is very broad when it comes to the individuality of the soldiers themselves.”

Sayles is now graduating from the program, and he took some time to reflect on his studies at ASU.

Question: What was your “aha” moment when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

Answer: Discovering and exploring the social impact of the second World War in American society during my time as an undergrad was my “aha” moment. To have an opportunity to expand upon the moment that I became interested in World War II in the form of an education was something I felt should not go to waste. I have no regrets.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

A: I would have to say that my world view has changed for the better since I have joined ASU because of the peers I had a chance to work with. When studying the second World War, the purpose and impact of public monuments and statues and genocide, you gain a different perspective of the world that you did not have before. That perspective is then grown even further when you interact with peers of different ages and places of origin than yourself. In undergrad, you tend to interact with people that are closer to your age. Personally, I went to a small school in southern Maryland for undergrad in which a large portion of my classmates were from either Maryland or Virginia. Being in the master’s program at ASU, interacting with people from different backgrounds, from different parts of the country and that are twice my age was a learning experience that I enjoyed and will not forget any time soon.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I chose ASU because the World War II program is directly linked to the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, Louisiana, a place that I really hope to visit, and maybe work at, one day.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: I would not say there is a specific lesson that I learned from him, but Dr. Jacob Flaws has been the most impactful figure in my time here in the WWII studies program. He helped me put together some parts of my monuments and memory project, and his feedback is the most memorable when it comes to reviewing my papers and projects.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: Practice your writing. The skill of writing is the most important tool a student can have at any level. Clear and well-done writing allows you to present new ideas, which is key in being noticeable in almost any academic or professional setting. Clearly presenting your thoughts, ideas or analysis through a compelling form of writing is the best way a student can showcase control and understanding of a topic or subject. 

Q: What was your favorite spot for power studying?

A: I get my best work done at the desk in my room. I have two extra monitors that I plug into my laptop so that I am able to separate my work and not overwhelm myself with a single screen. This is easily my comfort zone when it comes to getting work done or studying.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: Not entirely clear as of right now, but I would like to be a part of some research project or employed with a historical organization that focuses on the second World War. Eventually, I do want to continue my education in a PhD program and then enter the world of academia as a scholar at the college or university level.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I would focus that money on the teachers in Prince George’s County public schools in Maryland, the county I was born and raised in. With 198 schools and centers in the county, that's about $200,000 per school that can go towards the needs of teachers. Providing teachers with the supplies they need to do their jobs without having to use their personal money or old supplies would go a long way in the quality of learning. Not that the quality of education in the county is bad, I just believe that if the teachers are taken care of then they will take care of the students, and better conditions for the students lead to a higher-quality education.

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