By Sasha Nyary
Leah Willingham ’17 knew her late grandfather was a writer, but it wasn’t until she came to Mount Holyoke College that she became aware of his significance. The moment happened when she was taking a required course in medieval literature in her sophomore year. As the professor was taking attendance, he recognized her name and asked if she’d ever heard of Calder Willingham.
“I said, ‘Yes, I have heard of him, he’s my grandfather,’” Willingham said. “He proceeded to ask me if I had ever read any of his books. I said that I had not, and he encouraged me to read this book, which is called ‘End as a Man,’ which is my grandfather’s first novel.”
Willingham was one of 129 seniors presenting at Senior Symposium. The College’s annual April showcase for seniors is an opportunity for them to present their work, some of it several years in the making, and for the College community to honor its students — and be inspired. Research, theses and independent studies were presented in the arts, humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, math, computer science and languages. Now in its 11th year, the annual event is organized by the Weissman Center for Leadership.
Novelist and screenwriter Calder Willingham was a member of the Greenwich Village literary scene of the late 1940s and early 1950s, which also included Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, Gore Vidal and others. Leah Willingham’s yearlong independent study delved into her grandfather’s life, including reading his writing, digitizing her grandmother’s extensive photo collection, interviewing family members and those who knew and worked with him, and traveling to Georgia to visit his childhood home and his archives.
Senior Symposium serves as evidence of the rigorous intellectual training Mount Holyoke students experience, said Darren Hamilton, professor of chemistry and co-chair of the event, along with Kate Singer, associate professor of English.
“To all those students who presented today, we are immeasurably proud of you,” Hamilton said, addressing the seniors with a mixture of pride at their accomplishments and sorrow that they are graduating. “This an an amazing day, an amazing showcase of your efforts. We well with pride and occasionally burst into tears.”
The presentations at Senior Symposium typically reflect the way students use the significant resources Mount Holyoke offers them to do research, complete an internship or study abroad. The English department awarded Willingham, who wants to be a journalist, a Jean Sudrann ’39 Research Fund grant for her Georgia travel. She had previously received a Laurel Fellowship to study journalism in Serbia. She will be working as a reporter at her hometown newspaper, the Concord Monitor, in New Hampshire, after she graduates.
“I’m so glad I did a presentation,” said Leah Willingham, an English major. “I was so nervous leading up to this week. But it’s a great culmination to the year — to all four years — a great experience to share the work I’ve done with all of my peers. It really feels like everything’s come full circle.”
Willingham’s mother came to cheer her daughter on, one of many family members in attendance. Parents, grandparents, babies and siblings joined students, faculty, staff, alumnae and friends to celebrate the soon-to-be graduates, making the atmosphere both formal and festive. Seniors, dressed for the occasion, were easy to spot, with tired but jubilant smiles, some carrying flower bouquets.
Kristina Bush’s mother and two grandparents were excited to hear her speak about her work testing digital handwriting analysis tools by comparing different manuscripts written in Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic. But even more, her mother said, she was excited to meet her daughter’s advisor, whom Bush had described as her “faculty parent.”
In the fall, Bush, a medieval studies major with a Nexus in public history, archives, museums and digital humanities, will study library science with a focus on digital humanities at the University of North Carolina.
As always, the impressive topics ranged widely across disciplines, from Virginia Woolf and the art of biography (English), to traumatic brain injury (neuroscience and behavior) to using dance therapy for mental health (dance).
Many of the projects had practical, real-world applications. Erin Mullin used open-source code to create prosthetic hands for children on the 3-D printer in the Mount Holyoke College Makerspace, along with a guide on how she did it.
Sabrina Smith worked at the College’s Joseph Allen Skinner Museum for two years, and her thesis research has contributed a great deal to the latest interpretations of the museum’s collection, said Aaron Miller, associate curator of visual and material culture.
“So much of what we know about Skinner and his collection comes from student research, and Sabrina's thesis is quite insightful,” said Miller. The Skinner collection, a wide-ranging selection of nearly 7,000 items, including minerals, suits of armor, tools, farm implements, furniture and books, is part of the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum.
Through her research, Smith, an art history major, came to see the collection not as a modern-day cabinet of curiosities, as had been previously understood, she said.
“The collection reminded me of a memory theater,” which is a mnemonic device used to help people memorize speeches or stories, she said. Smith hypothesized that Skinner had collected objects that would trigger his memories.
“When it comes to relics, the object doesn’t matter as much as the narrative,” Smith said. “What he wanted was objects that could represent his memories. He was more interested in collecting physical representations of his narrative and his memories.”
Such relics included one of Skinner’s father’s buttons, which Smith included in her curated exhibition about the Skinner Museum for the Art Museum. William Skinner was a silk industry magnet, and the button was not only a souvenir, but also demonstrated an important moment in the silk industry as it moved from England to the United States.
Smith will spend the summer as an assistant curator at the Maria Mitchell house in Nantucket, Massachusetts. In the fall she will relocate to Paris, France, to teach and explore the Parisian arts.
A complete list of presentations and abstracts from the Senior Symposium is available.
Research your future. Learn more.