Since 2014, the Dietrich Honors Fellowship Program has supported the research and creative projects of 12 fellows who work closely with faculty advisors. Through the fellowship, students immerse themselves in their thesis research the summer before their senior year, and they develop lasting relationships with world-class faculty mentors that enhance their lives both academically and professionally.
But students aren’t the only ones who benefit. Professors enjoy seeing students take ownership of their projects, which include both in-depth research studies and creative output like novels and films.
Laurnie Wilson, an English and history major, is working with English Professor Jane Bernstein on a series of narratives that examine themes of growth and self-discovery from the perspective of a young woman. The multimedia project will incorporate both photography and text, illuminating the themes of the written work.
Before beginning her thesis, Wilson had enrolled in two of Bernstein’s courses — Reading in Forms and Survey of Forms: Screenwriting — where she established herself as a student who took her work seriously.
“What makes her a perfect student for this kind of project is that she’s motivated, diligent, open to suggestions and willing to revise and to change course, when necessary,” said Bernstein. “Not every student is ready for the kind of commitment it takes to design, draft and complete a full-year project, but for those who have reached that point, it can be a very fulfilling relationship for mentor and student.”
Wilson finds the student-advisor relationship to be the most valuable aspect of the fellowship. She appreciates the flexibility, patience and support Bernstein has offered, as well as the room to experiment with the writing process.
“I have learned so much from working closely with a woman who is a successful writer in her own right. More than any class could ever offer, this program has allowed me to peek into the world of writing for the long-term,” said Wilson.
Like Bernstein, Colin Clarke enjoys mentoring fellows because they are highly motivated, talented students. An instructor in the Institute for Politics and Strategy, Clarke likens the academic rigor of the fellowship program to graduate level work.
Clarke is working with Chloe Thompson, who is majoring in global studies and Hispanic Studies. Thompson’s research analyzes the Westphalian model of the nation-state in the modern world through a comparison of the development of the militant group Hezbollah with that of the Provisional Irish Republican Army.
“The benefits of working one-on-one with Chloe have been the free-flowing exchange of ideas back and forth and the ability to approach the research process organically,” Clarke said. “For a project of this magnitude, students really need the singular focus of a faculty sponsor to help shape the research design and work through methodological wrinkles when they arise.”
Feeney enjoys every aspect of the mentoring process, from helping students develop their initial ideas about what to investigate, to devising appropriate methods for testing hypotheses, collecting data and writing reports suitable for publication.
“I enjoy watching my fellowship students learn how to mentor others themselves – a skill they don’t anticipate but often develop when they supervise research assistants on their projects,” said Feeney.
Last year, Feeney mentored Jaclyn Ross, who studied the role of power in conflict resolution in romantic relationships. Today, Ross is a graduate student in clinical psychology at UCLA.
“My greatest joy is seeing how the experience conducting an honors thesis impacts students’ career goals and admittance into graduate programs,” Feeney said.
Feeney is currently advising Kaylyn Kim, a psychology major who is examining how security priming may reduce or eliminate the experience of jealousy in romantic relationships through a research study that involves both experimental and observational methods.
Feeney commented, “Kaylyn has been a pleasure to mentor. She is bright and motivated and it has been rewarding for me to see her research skills blossom.”
Like Feeney, Judith Schachter, professor of anthropology in the Department of History, worked with students during both fellowship terms.
Last year, Schachter mentored Minnar Xie, a BHA student in art and psychology. During her fellowship, Xie researched strategies of cultural adaptation within communities of Bhutanese and Nepali refugees in Pittsburgh.
Schachter is currently working with Geneva Jackson, who is majoring in global studies and history. Jackson is using intensive ethnographic data-collection methods for her thesis, in which she argues that contemporary music festivals serve as rites of passage for participants, moving American youth from one stage of life to another.
Both Xie and Jackson developed their ethnographic fieldwork skills under Schachter’s guidance.
“Given the challenges of ethnographic fieldwork, close contact with me as an advisor has been crucial to guiding students through a sometimes baffling and often distressing process of moving from data collecting to interpreting, and then to presenting results,” Schachter remarked.
One Hyuk (John) Ra participated in the first year of the Dietrich Honors Fellowship under the guidance of Psychology Professor Vicki Helgeson. As a psychology major, Ra examined the relationship between volunteerism and health in older adults.
“The major benefit of working one-on-one with my faculty advisor was having someone who virtually knew my project in-and-out as well as I did,” said Ra. “I liked building a relationship with a faculty advisor who was not only invested in seeing me through the completion of my thesis project, but also through my undergraduate education.”
Helgeson echoes Ra’s sentiments. “The summer internship gave me an opportunity to spend time with John and really get to know him,” she said.
The personal relationship between students and advisors is key. Lucy Pei, who is majoring in global studies and human-computer interaction, developed her thesis from a service-learning experience in which she worked with ESL students in Pittsburgh. Her advisor is Susan Polansky, head of the Department of Modern Languages and teaching professor of Hispanic Studies.
Pei appreciates Polansky as a sounding board for ideas and often turns to their one-on-one meetings as a source of encouragement.
“After walking in feeling wilted and discouraged, I'd walk out feeling like I could conquer this project,” said Pei.
The deadline to apply for the 2016-2017 Senior Honors Program and Honors Fellowship Program is March 16, 2016. Students interested in learning more about writing a proposal are invited to attend an information session:
Dietrich Honors Program and Fellowship Project Proposal Writing Workshop
Thursday, February 25th
4:30 p.m., Steinberg Auditorium
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By Emily Stimmel