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ASU history PhD’s advice for success: 'Roll with the punches'


Selfie of William Holly in an outdoor mountainous setting.

William Holly earned his PhD in history through ASU's School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies.

December 07, 2023

Editor’s note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable fall 2023 graduates.

William Holly has lived in many places, but Arizona is the place he has felt most at home. When applying to PhD programs, Holly knew he would be researching the sacred ancestral lands in the San Francisco Peaks near Flagstaff, so getting into Arizona State University’s history program was ideal.  

“It made sense to be closer to the resources needed to complete the work,” Holly said. 

During his tenure as a doctoral student, Holly won a number of fellowships and scholarships, including the Max Millett Family Travel Grant, the Charles Redd Fellowship Award in Western American History and a research scholarship from the Grand Canyon Historical Society

Though it seemed like on the outside things were falling into place for Holly, he had his fair share of setbacks. 

“When I came (to ASU), I was on what I felt was a well-defined path that was going to take me through my doctoral studies nice and smooth,” he said. “Then things changed, and more things changed and every time things changed I had two choices: Adapt or quit.” 

When asked what advice he would give fellow students, Holly replied, “ It's not always about how smart you are. A lot of times success is about perseverance and rolling with the punches.”

Here are a few additional highlights from our Q&A with him: 

Question: What was your "aha" moment when you realized what you wanted to study? 

Answer: I was an undergrad at Central Washington University and I was taking a "U.S. history to 1865" course. My professor, Ken Munsell, was lecturing on the role of the Enlightenment in the development of the Declaration of Independence, something far removed from what I work on presently. He was very passionate about the subject, and even though it was not then (or now) a favorite study subject of mine, I was hooked anyway. I went to his office after class and said, "I want to do your job!" He took me to the department advisor to get signed up as a history major, and I've been studying it ever since. 

Q: Which professor taught you one of the most important lessons you've learned at ASU? What was the lesson? 

A: My doctoral committee chair, Professor Julian Lim, has been the most valuable person in my professional life over the last few years. She has taught me many things about being a historian and being an educator. I know that is a big-picture answer, but at the same time, I would not be where I am professionally without the aggregate of lessons she has taught me. 

Q: What is your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends, or otherwise? 

A: Hayden Library. The courtyard is a favorite place to go for coffee with friends. The library has plenty of places to go for studying. 

Q: What are your plans after graduation? 

A: I was hired as a full-time history faculty member at Northland Pioneer College in Winslow, Arizona, last year, and I am still employed with them. I am also working towards turning my dissertation into a book and have had early discussions on that goal with some publishers. 

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

A: I am an animal lover, especially cats, and I think I would apply the money to helping animal rescues and shelters. 

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