While most kids were relaxing poolside with their friends or taking beach vacations, Brina Ratangee was in full-on cram mode.
“Right when school ended in June, every day for four or five hours, I was just reading and studying and trying to get as much knowledge as I could,” said the rising Urbana High School (UHS) sophomore.
Even her nightly TV indulgence—“Jeopardy” with her parents—was an occasion to study. She watched the quiz show as an audience competitor, with a pen in her hand, ready to “click in” whenever she knew an answer.
In July at the Berlin Brandenburg International School in Germany, her long hours of study were put to the test. Brina was one of three Maryland students to compete in the International History Olympiad (IHO). IHO’s website, www.historyolympiad.com, describes the event as “a competition … designed to bring the top history students from around the world together for an unforgettable nine days full of various competitions with a history-based theme, and a chance to meet students with similar interests and talents.”
Brina, who still keeps in touch with the friends she made—friends from Poland, Turkey and Hong Kong—enjoyed her experience so much that she even chose to make a speech at IHO’s closing ceremonies, which were held in the Charlottenburg Palace.
At IHO, students at three different age-based levels of competition—middle school, junior varsity and varsity—compete in a whole host of events ranging in challenge format and subject. While there are some topical mainstays, like art history, ancient history and history of STEM, the contents of the competition are based, in part, on the Olympiad’s location. This year’s competition in Berlin involved a German military history competition and a juried simulation of the Potsdam Conference.
To further capitalize on the history and culture of its host city, IHO organized several optional tours and trips, like a visit to the Berlin Zoo and the German Spy Museum, which were available to student competitors and their families.
Brina’s favorite trip was a tour of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Oranienburg, 35 kilometers north of Berlin. Sachsenhausen, which is now a museum, features artifacts of the lives of prisoners once housed there: letters, a set of blue-striped pajamas, and a pile of gold teeth.
“That was sad,” said Brina, “but I was glad they had properly memorialized their lives.”
Though the destination for IHO’s next Olympiad, which will take place in 2020, is yet to be announced, Brina hopes it will be held in South Africa, where her father was born.
Since its inaugural Olympiad in 2015, IHO has grown its global reach more than 170 percent from 14 attending countries to 24 this year. In other areas, the competition still has room to grow.
Nearly 40 percent of the competitors were American, and there were no competitors from African countries. Also, of the 224 competitors, Brina was one of only 15 girls, and the only girl to compete in the women’s history final.
“History is … I don’t want to say ‘dominated by boys’…” Brina said, but that’s certainly what the attendance of IHO reflects.
While she didn’t place in the women’s history final, she did medal in two other events, receiving a gold and a silver.
Brina credits her eighth-grade social studies teacher, Ms. Megan Blakeslee, as a huge factor in the pursuit of her study of history. It was with Ms. Blakeslee’s encouragement that Brina competed in the regional, and ultimately the National History Bee that qualified her for IHO.
“She was so motivated, inquisitive and just really looked to dig into history,” Ms. Blakeslee recalled. Like Brina, Ms. Blakeslee identifies her own middle school education, particularly a classroom visit from a World War II veteran, as the source of her love of history.
But even before Ms. Blakeslee’s American History class, Brina had a scholar’s enthusiasm for history.
“You made us take you to Springfield, Illinois,” Mrs. Ratangee teased her daughter. In 2015, the Ratangees took a family trip to the capital city of Illinois, which was the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln, Brina’s favorite president, and home to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. The teasing is gentle; the Ratangees are a family of history-lovers.
Brina is thinking of forming a history bowl at Urbana High School. She’s already got some friends in mind for future teammates. And maybe, with Brina at the helm, Maryland will flood the 2020 IHO with junior historians.