By Keely Sexton
Senior Symposium is the day at Mount Holyoke when students become experts. They present a project that is the culmination of their years of hard work and research, and showcase their academic prowess in front of faculty, family and friends. The presentations they give are often the crowning moment in a senior’s academic career.
This year’s Senior Symposium was a fully online experience, as the COVID-19 pandemic has forced many gatherings to be reimagined for a physically distanced world. Fortuitously, the virtual format created an opportunity for students near and far to participate and to be supported by their friends and family wherever they were in the world.
“I am inspired, humbled and deeply impressed by this year’s Senior Symposium and by the class of 2021,” said Amy E. Martin, director of the Weissman Center for Leadership, which oversees the program. “This year’s event was a testimony to the kind of sophisticated and rich work made possible when students collaborate with faculty and staff at a liberal arts college. The level of achievement really is unique to Mount Holyoke.”
While Senior Symposium is a crowning achievement in a student’s academic metamorphosis, it is only a snapshot. That scholarship begins the moment a student first steps foot on Mount Holyoke’s campus, where faculty and students work together to build knowledge across all fields.
This year’s virtual event featured 132 presenters in 32 panels in different topics. Senior Symposium is intended for seniors but several LEAP presentations were also included this year. Each senior presenter was given 12 minutes to describe their area of focus, their work and their findings. Students presented on topics from the structure of chemical elements to the exploration of identity through textiles.
In her dance presentation, she choreographed a dream ballet, a dance sequence that reveals the protagonist’s internal mindscape as the action of the play unfolds. Building on the knowledge she gained from studying Gothic themes in Jewish literature, she presented creative writing of her own.
“I realized that my work is heavily based on my own Jewish identity and how I relate to Judaism,” she said. “In creating both of these pieces, I came to some realizations about myself and the way I relate to and perform Judaism. It has been transformative in terms of my own identity.”
In a panel on biology presided over by Patricia Brennan, assistant professor of biological sciences, students revealed the anatomical intricacies and ecological adaptations that animals have made in response to evolutionary and environmental pressures using new biometric techniques to visualize the features.
The panelists presented on habitat migration, anatomical discoveries, and how species have adapted to changing challenges. After the students presented their work, Brennan emphasized what special challenges each had to overcome to present a quality of work that would have been exemplary in any given year.
“I have been attending Senior Symposiums for several years now and there’s no way that I would have been able to point to any of your presentations and say, ‘Oh, this one was a pandemic one.’ You know you did this without access to direct samples, without being able to go to the field, no real-time feedback. ” she said. “It says a lot about your amazing resilience as human beings. If you can make it through these you’ll be ready for anything.”
In another panel moderated by Corey Flanders, assistant professor of psychology and education, students presented original research on religion, gender and sexuality. Shayn Keiter-Massefski ’21, a psychology and education major who is also pursuing a Five College Certificate in Cognitive Neuroscience, spoke on the use of multiple pronouns amongst some nonbinary individuals.
Keiter-Massefski, who uses both they/them and he/him pronouns, said that the research was revelatory.
“At the most basic level we know from research and life experience that respecting people’s pronouns and names and gendered language is important for physical and emotional well-being,” they said.
In his study, 84 participants described their relationship to gender and their own use of pronouns. Because Keiter-Massefski presented open-ended questions rather than a set of predefined answers, the data is expansive and is still being analyzed.
“All of this data really opens up a lot of potential for future analysis examining intersections of identity and interactions in the context of more of the anecdotal information that participants provided later on in the survey,” said Keiter-Massefski, whose presentation was attended by their extended family and friends.
At the same panel, Mya Wright ’21 presented her research on the ways in which bisexual-identified people are erased or excluded from both predominantly straight and predominantly gay spaces. Wright, a Posse scholar from Miami, Florida, says the research tracked to her own evolution in understanding herself as a person in the greater world.
“I came to Mount Holyoke knowing I wanted to do psychology,” she said. “I wanted to explore sexuality and race, but I also love to explore things like personality disorders,” she said. “What really shaped me was taking Cory Flanders’s course on human sexuality.”
Flanders became Wright’s thesis advisor. Through that relationship, Wright said, she learned “how to think about statistics, how to think about humans, how to think about narratives and how valid narratives are missing keys within psychology.”
She used her own interest in understanding sexuality and gender identity within the full context of an individuals’ various identities and experiences.
When Jen Villa ’21 came to Mount Holyoke as a first-year, first-generation student from Queens, New York, she wanted to honor her family and origins. She wanted to tell the story of her paternal grandmother, who lived in the mountains and sold wares at a city market in Peru. Her occupation took her too far from her roots to be considered Indigenous, but also kept her too distant from city life to be considered modern. So Villa’s grandmother was considered, as many Peruvian market workers are, a “chola.”
A visual artist, Villa made a blazer with a colorful scene depicting her grandmother’s life emblazoned on the back.
Then, she was scrolling her social media feed when she saw a story from a friend who inspired her to think bigger.
“She is the daughter of a fruit vendor and she said she’d always be proud to look back at how her mother would prep the mangoes in the morning,” Villa said. “I realized that so many other people have stories, just like mine, of families and labor.”
Working with Ligia Bouton, associate professor of art studio, Villa created blazers with colorful scenes on their backs, depicting the lives, labor and family of first-generation students, using a combination of techniques to realize her vision.
“I wanted to work with Latinx first generation college students, to put their stories down through this visual representation,” she said. “I wanted to showcase their pride and sense of belonging to their own story.”
Martin was delighted with this year’s virtual Senior Symposium.
“The presentations were fantastic — intellectual and creative projects, sustained and ground-breaking research, visionary design and analysis across all the disciplines,” said Martin, who is also Professor of English on the Emma B. Kennedy Foundation.
“It is made all the more special because our students had the tenacity and commitment to sustain their capstone projects during COVID times — and in some cases across great distances and in the face of obstacles and brand-new forms of learning. Our seniors inspire all of us with what they have accomplished. I am truly moved by their achievements.”
Originally conceived decades ago as a project of the chemistry department, Senior Symposium expanded to incorporate all of the sciences in 1975.In 2006, the rite of passage was open to, though not required of, the entire senior class.
Senior Symposium is supported in part by the Richard and Donna Taylor Endowment Fund, established by Jean Taylor ’66.