Making history

HISTORIC ST. MARY'S CITY, Md. – Jane Kostenko’s story is one with many chapters.

She was the first woman president of Minot State’s student government. She has excavated burials at a historic Maryland church, and she was a first to volunteer for the American Birding Association. Each of these chapters comes from a larger story of diverse civic engagement and commitment to history, whether she is making it or helping find it.

Kostenko ’79/’80 grew up in Minot and majored in her childhood interests of German and earth science. She earned Bachelor of Arts degrees in both, with a concentration in journalism, then returned the next year to earn education degrees in each major. Throughout her studies, she also participated in a multitude of extracurriculars. She wrote, photographed, and edited for both the Red and Green student newspaper and The Beaver yearbook, was active in German club, science club, women’s chorus, Phi Sigma Pi, and was the first woman president of the student government.

One extracurricular, the Phi Sigma Pi honor fraternity, eventually led her to her next chapter. Recently gone coed at Minot State, the fraternity at other institutions had not all followed suit. Kostenko yet again made history at her new school in Millersville, Pennsylvania.

“I went to a national convention in Washington, D.C. and met fellow Phi Sigs,” she said. “They spoke of this Millersville University, a college at the time, and how great it was. They had one of the best earth science departments in the nation. I ended up going there because these guys bragged about it. Then they had to accept me, a woman. I ran around in my Phi Sigma Pi jacket, and the guys went, ‘Hey! Who gave you that jacket?’”

Kostenko earned a Master of Education degree. After her studies there, she and her now husband (J. Tyler Bell) stumbled upon the city in Maryland that has been their home for the last 41 years.

“We went to this place called St. Mary’s City,” she said. “Their big thing was archaeology, and since the fourth grade, when I did my big report on Heinrich Schliemann, I had wanted to be an archaeologist. But oddly enough, no one ever said to me, ‘Young lady, you could have a job in archaeology.’ So I thought, ‘You know what, I can.’”

Kostenko’s first job after graduating was as an archaeologist for Historic St. Mary’s City, Maryland’s first capital which is preserved as a museum-like outdoor historical experience. She worked there over the course of a decade after working for St. Mary’s College of Maryland, then with the county’s department on aging, before becoming an educator with the University of Maryland Extension.

Since her retirement in 2017, Kostenko has spent her time giving back to the community. In March of 2023, Kostenko and her husband were awarded Historic St. Mary’s City’s highest honor, the Cross Bottony, to commemorate their decades of service. The award shares a name with the cross symbol on Maryland’s flag staff, which itself is a reference to the first family who settled in the state. Continuing her archaeology for the city, one project she worked on was excavating burials at the 1667 Brick Chapel in preparation for its reconstruction.

Kostenko and her husband also volunteer at the Calvert Marine Museum and the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, and they helped decorate the state trees that surround the national Christmas tree in Washington, DC, at President’s Park for the National Park Service, along with doing crowd control at seasonal White House garden tours.

By pure coincidence, Kostenko also has returned to Minot to volunteer for yet another organization, the American Birding Association. In 2009, Kostenko and her husband also won the Claudia Wilds Award for their service there.

“When I was growing up, my dad always had a pair of binoculars in the car. We didn’t always know what we were looking at, but we always enjoyed looking at the birds,” she said. “My husband and I stumbled by chance across the American Birding Association, and lo and behold, they held one of their biggest conventions in Minot that year (1994). We had just joined, and it was going to be around the same time we were going home for a wedding, so we reached out. We were thinking it would be running around in vans with half a dozen people, and it turned out they had five or six hundred people come to it. They were like, ‘Volunteers? We’ve never had volunteers before!’ From then on, twice a year they would fly us wherever they were having an event in the US and Canada.”

Among all the different experiences and organizations, Kostenko contributes her formative years to Minot.

“Growing up in North Dakota and my undergraduate years at Minot absolutely made me the person I am,” she said. “I still think of myself as a North Dakotan. The teachers I had, the experiences I had at Minot State, I was able to be a big fish in a small pond. I did things at Minot that I never would have been able to do at a big university. The clubs and organizations, the people I worked with, the classes I took, everything was a little extra special. It was an incredible experience.”

About Minot State University
Minot State University is a public university dedicated to excellence in education, scholarship, and community engagement achieved through rigorous academic experiences, active learning environments, commitment to public service, and a vibrant campus life.

Published: 04/19/24   

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