Connecticut College Magazine · Spring 2011

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On the cover: Writer/producer Lee Eisenberg '99 entertainS a packed evans hall in the first of a series of centennial "Conversations with alumni" in January. Photo by Bob Macdonnell

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Thinking Ahead

Thinking Ahead
Eunice Kua '02 with Professor Martha Grossel.

Honors theses put students on a path to success

By Crai Bower '84


Researching and creating an honors thesis is like a nine-month decathlon, without the cheering crowds. Under the direction of a faculty mentor, it's a grueling and often solitary intellectual exercise that tests the student's stamina, endurance and perseverance — and one that fewer than 15 percent of students achieve. Those who do find it's a profound learning experience that often leads them toward graduate school, careers and further achievement.

Following are the stories of six alumni who were awarded the College's Oakes and Louise Ames Prize for best honors thesis.

Rick Canavan '93
Environmental Scientist


Like the ecosystem itself, the study of earth science depends on an interdisciplinary approach, a fact that appealed greatly to Rick Canavan when he first stepped into Professor Peter Siver's botany class. Canavan initially declared a philosophy major, but dropped it to a minor
as he was drawn to the energy of the environmental
studies program.

The inclusive web of the research strategies held instant appeal as well. “I was part of a team, working with other undergraduates, faculty and master's candidates,” he says. “We all produced different data for the projects but we also benefitted greatly from each other's data.”

Canavan has the highest praise for the College student-faculty research programs in the sciences. Even before he started his senior year, he had examined sediment samples from the bottoms of lakes and rivers — for 19 months. “I actually devoted more time to deep research studies at Conn than in my master's degree study,” he says.

He completed his course requirements midway through his senior year, allowing him to devote the rest of the year to full-time work with Siver and to his senior thesis, which documented water quality in 50 Connecticut lakes and ponds. “I didn't have to wrestle with the conflicts of other classes,” he remembers.

After graduation, Canavan earned a master's degree in soil sciences from Cornell University and a doctorate from Utrecht University in the Netherlands. He continues to visit the College often from his office in the Hartford area, where he is senior environmental scientist at CME Associates.

“The opportunity to do the research at Conn definitely influenced my career. (It) showed me how interesting it was to go deeply into a project,” he says. “The time and effort I put into this project continues to pay off.”

John Symons '94
Philosophy professor


Professor John Symons understands just how fortunate he was to discover philosophy in an intimate setting at Connecticut College. Now chair of the University of Texas at El Paso philosophy department, the scholar followed the path of many leading minds, one of discovery, celebration, reflection and evolution.

“I'm sure there are few professors teaching courses like Professor Lester Reiss' 'Human Life and History' today,” he says. “Reiss presented this sweeping survey of grand intellectual history that was so beautiful, my class of 20 peers was captivated by his grand narrative approach to intellectual history.”

Symons also was greatly influenced by “The Man without Qualities,” a novel he'd read during an independent study with Marijan Despalatovic, senior lecturer in Slavic studies and philosophy. “We focused on this one book that really brought Viennese culture to life and became essential to my understanding of Ludwig Wittgenstein and the Vienna Circle.”

As a result of these interdisciplinary studies, Symons became fascinated with Wittgenstein, the early-20th-century philosopher who inspired “logical positivism.” He not only devoted his senior thesis to the genius, he went on to graduate school at Boston University, at the time the epicenter of American Wittgenstein studies.

“I quickly realized that I disagreed with Wittgenstein about the disordered state of philosophy,” Symons says. “As I learned more about contemporary philosophy, I realized how much exciting progress had taken place in the second half of the 20th century and was eager to be part of these developments.”

Writing an honors thesis at Connecticut College, Symons says, helped him prove to himself that he had the discipline to commit to a subject as complex as philosophy. Winning the Ames Prize validated this effort, he says, even though he fervently believed that another scholar in his class, Marie Taylor '94, deserved the College award even more for her remarkable history thesis, on racial unrest in the U.S. He eventually resolved this philosophical dilemma by making yet another commitment: he married her.

Katie Umans '01
Poet


Unlike many freshmen who have no preconceptions about what they plan to study, Katie Umans arrived already focused on poetry, having recently attended a summer writing program in Vermont. Connecticut College, home to a formidable English legacy that included literary scholars and poets like William Meredith, was both challenging and exciting.

“I knew this is where my passion lay, and I liked the challenge of being encouraged and critiqued,” she recalls.

Umans found many mentors at the College, including Professor of English Charles Hartman, the College's poet-in-residence; Roman and Tatiana Weller Professor of English Blanche Boyd, writer-in-residence; and several visiting professors.

With Hartman as her adviser, Umans wrote “Old Currency,” a volume of original poems, as her thesis. Their topics ranged from travel to domestic negotiations, from blown glass to the landscape of cemeteries, from dreams to mosquitoes.

In nominating the thesis for the Ames Prize, Hartman said it was “the most consistent thesis since the honors program in poetry began, and the one showing the most assurance for the poet's future.”

Ten years later, his prediction has come true. While helping write grants at the University of New Hampshire Foundation and teaching online in the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth program, Umans has continued to write and publish to critical acclaim. She recently received the St. Lawrence Book Award for her collection, “Flock Book,” which will be published by Black Lawrence Press/Dzanc Books in 2012. The manuscript was a finalist for the Prairie Schooner Book Prize and other national awards, and her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Last year the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts awarded Umans an Individual Artist's Grant.

“This is a very exciting time,” she says.

Eunice Kua '02
Literacy teacher in North Africa


Eunice Kua had never seen Connecticut College before she arrived for orientation in the fall of 1998. She had applied to American colleges sight unseen from her native Malaysia, and she was captivated by the beauty of the campus and the variety of courses.

The human genome project was prominent news back then, and Kua had already written about the cloned sheep Dolly in high school. Her interdisciplinary thesis examined the roles of the scientist, the journalist and the public in communicating about scientific discoveries.

“I loved science but knew I didn't want to do lab work,” says Kua, who majored in biochemistry, cellular and molecular biology. “I had advisers from the biology department and the English department to assist me with my thesis.”

Post-graduation, Kua has continued to exercise her wide-ranging curiosity. She earned a master's degree in information with a specialization in library services from the University of Michigan. “I've always been fascinated about how people find things out,” she says. “I'm driven to help as many people as possible have access to the world of information.”

To this end, Kua recently signed a second two-year commitment to manage a literacy program in Chad for Darfur refugees. The program teaches refugees to write in Masalit, their native tongue, which has a written record that spans less than two decades.

“I learned at Conn that being literate, while not a cure for all social ills, is a vital step toward empowerment,” she says. “As refugees, the people from Darfur share a passion to preserve their culture and language. I recently visited the British Library in London where I found myself reflecting on how voluminous the English language's history is. The Darfur refugees are at the very beginning of their literate history.”

Kua says she was shocked and a bit embarrassed when her thesis won the Ames Prize. “It was a great honor, but the quality of the other theses was so high,” she says. “I was touched that many professors approached me and said they looked forward to reading it, though it was pretty long. And I was also psyched to score one for the sciences.”

David Kahn '06
Film and video producer


The first time he visited early in this century, David Kahn fell for India the same way Professor Ed Brodkin must have fallen for the subcontinent half a century before. Like the Lucretia L. Allyn Professor Emeritus of History, Kahn embraced the diversity, trying new foods at every opportunity and losing himself within the culture.

The second time Kahn traveled to India, he was keenly aware of Brodkin's sentiments, because he was one of 17 Connecticut College students in a semester-long Study Away Teach Away (SATA) program in Mysore, India, led by Brodkin.

“I was becoming increasingly focused on film production at Conn at the same time I was plotting my return to India,” Kahn recalls. “When I returned from SATA, the idea of a film set in India came up early in conversation.”

Kahn, who majored in film studies, decided to write, produce and direct a full-length romantic comedy set in India for his thesis. “I bit off way more than I could chew, but as a self-designed major, I did have some flexibility to work in over credits,” he says. “I worked very long hours in the editing lab in the Olin Science Center. Friends would bring me food, and I'd occasionally nap below the editing table.”

The result of his dedication was “The Bombay Project,” about an American college student who travels to Mumbai to help a graduate student make a Bollywood movie. The film offered a nuanced critique of the romantic fascination that many American young people develop toward “exotic” cultures, and particularly India.

“This film is more ambitious and better executed than most M.F.A. thesis projects from top-rated graduate programs in film,” wrote Kahn's thesis adviser, David Tetzlaff, associate professor of film studies. “I have not seen its like in 26 years of teaching undergraduate students.”

Today, Kahn continues to work on independent films. A founding partner of eCastVideo, a video production firm in Watertown, Mass., he returns to the College as often as possible, working on production and design with the theater department. Most recently, he gave back to the College by helping to create a short Centennial video. He is also creating a film for his fifth reunion.

Kimberly Richards O'Hagan '07
Divinity school graduate and pluralism activist


"I was raised Episcopalian but hadn't intended to take any religion classes in college,” Kimberly O'Hagan explains, “but one of the requirements at Conn is a class in philosophy or religion, so I took a class on the New Testament.”

O'Hagan found she loved examining religion from a non-religious perspective. Though she started as a government major, she decided to double major after taking her second religious studies course. After graduation, O'Hagan immediately entered Harvard Divinity School to pursue her master's degree in theological studies, which she earned in 2009.

“In the beginning I was intrigued by the non-religious study of religion, but then one day I realized that religion really drives the world,” she says. “I also began to see how unfairly many minority religions are treated in America.”

Coming from a family that placed a high value on education, O'Hagan knew she wanted her thesis to explore themes that surrounded schools, religion and government. The news at that time was filled with stories about the religious right's attempts to infiltrate and dominate several school boards to affect, specifically, the teaching of evolution in public schools. Three prominent school boards had recently voted to mandate the inclusion of “intelligent design” along with Darwin's theory. The young scholar had found her topic.

“A professor told me no one had yet published a paper on the long-term impact of these Christian right-dominated school boards,” O'Hagan says. “Developing the tenacity to research this topic for nine months and compose a 150-page research paper really paid off in graduate school.”

O'Hagan, who last July married Brendan O'Hagan '09 in Harkness Chapel, is currently working at Harvard Divinity School as an events coordinator, organizing lecture series and other events. She is also active with the Pluralism Project, a research project at Harvard that studies minority faiths in the U.S.

“The study and advocacy of minority religions has become my life's work,” O'Hagan says.

See the names of all of 23 Ames Award winners so far.


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