A crowning achievement

Presenting at Senior Symposium 2018

By Kathleen Mellen 

It was mid-morning last Friday when Madeline Cook ’18 took her place at the podium to talk about her theories of political representation, and how shifting needs and identities of constituents can most effectively be met by politicians elected to represent them. 

Standing before the nearly full auditorium in the Reese Psychology & Education Building, Cook, a politics major, spoke with authority on the topic. For, although her talk, “Coalition as Representation: Revitalizing Democratic Accountability and Participation,” was just 12 minutes long, the presentation represented a full year of vigorous work and research that Cook had done in preparing a senior thesis. 

“I’ve been working on this project since last April,” Cook said after completing her presentation. “Today is an amazing opportunity for me to show people just what it is I’ve been working on.” 

Cook was one of 103 students in 25 disciplines who participated in Senior Symposium, an annual event, now in its 12th year, during which seniors in the arts, humanities, languages, and social and natural sciences showcase their intellectual passions, independent projects and scholarly research done over the past academic year — and indeed, throughout their college careers. 

“We are a research-oriented liberal arts college, and we want our students to have a chance to do deep research,” said Amy E. Martin, who is the interim director of the Weissman Center for Leadership, which organizes the event. “Through our labs and courses related to this type of scholarship, we offer our students a chance to do the kind of research usually only graduate students do.” 

Martin, who is also Professor of English on the Emma B. Kennedy Foundation, stressed that the work presented by students was not just the culmination of a single year’s scholarship, as significant as that is. In fact, it is a capstone of their entire Mount Holyoke experience, and the breadth of topics was as diverse as the students presenting them. 

For example, Alexa Gonzalez ’18, a neuroscience and behavior major, discussed ways to improve adult literacy, while Molly Dunphy ’18, a politics  major, parlayed a year of study in the Netherlands into an investigation of issues of assimilation versus integration among refugee populations in Europe. 

Other topics, ranging from geology and English to mathematics and religion, were as far-ranging. History major Elaine Hartman ’18 discussed controversies surrounding vaccination programs in the United States, while Renea Burke FP’18, a studio art major, looked at the use of iconographic images of black women immersed in nature. Sabrina Fox ’18, an Italian major, talked about her development of a teaching manual in Italian, for use with beginning equestrians, and Alice Fan ’18, a dance major, compared gender roles in three dance forms: Chinese dance, belly dance and salsa. 

“It’s really moving to see these students, many of whom I’ve known since their first days at Mount Holyoke, realize their academic dreams,” Martin said. “I learn so much every year.” 

Each talk was about 12 minutes long and was followed by a brief question-and-answer period. The sessions, which took place across campus, were moderated by college faculty, including Andrew G. Reiter, an associate professor of politics and international relations. 

“A lot of long-term projects are very solitary endeavors,” Reiter said. “So it’s great for them to present to their friends, faculty and family. At Senior Symposium, they get to command the room.” 

Distilling the results of her 80-page thesis into such a short presentation was no cakewalk, Cook said, but she got an assist from friends, professors and others on campus, who helped her every step of the way. 

“Writing a thesis and leading up to this presentation definitely had moments of growing pains, but they’ve been really important,” Cook said. “I give a lot of credit to professors for their help and support. They talk to me like I have something to offer. They think my ideas matter and they push me to fully live up to my potential. They don’t let me settle at all.” 

That sort of support is key to Mount Holyoke college’s mission, Martin said. And the Senior Symposium is a crucial part of their education. 

“They need to know how to convey what they’ve learned to a larger audience,” she said. 

The presentation by Elise Newcomer ’18, a history and French double major, was inspired by one of the very first courses she took at Mount Holyoke, a first-year seminar taught by German senior lecturer Mark Lauer, who introduced students to the College Archives and Special Collections

“My first paper was about the farmerettes, women who worked in the fields around Mount Holyoke and provided food for the College to offset their costs,” Newcomer said. She expanded on the themes of her early class and utilized those same archives to do research for her talk, “The Evolution of Mount Holyoke College’s Dining Hall: SuperBlanch, How Did We Get Here?” 

In her investigation into the genesis of the new Dining Commons, a centralized dining hall on campus, Newcomer looked at the College’s tradition of community and of shared work among students that harkened back to the days when Mount Holyoke founder Mary Lyon required an equal share of chores of all members of the community. 

“This transition from a cottage dining hall system to a centralized system is a really momentous time and I wanted to understand more about how we got here,” Newcomer said. The best way to do that is to go back to history — to see how things happened in the past.” 

Each session of the symposium was attended by faculty, staff, students and, in many cases, family, who were there to support their students as they reached the culmination of their academic careers. And if lumps in the throat were a measure of the pride they felt, Cook’s mother was, indeed, as pleased as she could be. 

“I love that she’s been able to develop her ability to think critically, to develop ideas — and to share those ideas — all in a very sophisticated way,” said Martha Butler, of Albany, N.Y., tearing up a bit as she congratulated Cook after the presentation. “That is a gift this school has given her that she will use her entire life.” 

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