Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts
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From cancer to Zumba

Students present research at symposium

Savannah Tenney ’14 has worked with cancer nonprofits since she was 13 years old as a volunteer. This semester, the anthropology major gained a different perspective on how the illness affects the lives of women, by conducting research for her thesis.

She interviewed nine women with ovarian cancer and compared their experiences. “I found that each woman described being influenced throughout her illness by family, friends, physicians, social activities, and cultural ideas about the female body,” Tenney said. “Their narratives showed that illness is not simply a medical experience, but also a social experience.”

She recently discussed her findings at the 32nd Annual Sociology and Anthropology Senior Symposium, in which 25 seniors gave presentations on the theses they have written. The two-day symposium also featured a keynote address by Orly Clerge ’05, who majored in sociology at Wheaton, received her Ph.D. at Brown University, and is a postdoctoral associate for the Urban Ethnography Workshop at Yale University.

Wheaton’s senior symposium began in 1982 when sociology and anthropology were a joint department. Though the two departments are now separate, students from each discipline still focus on similar questions and concerns, so the professors still hold a joint symposium.

All anthropology and sociology majors are required to write a thesis, which Professor of Sociology Kersti Yllo said she believes is essential to the students’ academic experience. Sociology students also have the option of doing a non-empirical thesis that emphasizes conceptual analysis during the spring semester.

“The thesis research is the capstone of the major,” she said. “Students learn how to do research and apply what they learn in their courses about theory and methods.”

Tenney ’14, agrees: “Part of being an anthropologist is engaging in participant observation and honing your skills when working in the field. I don't think it would be possible to really engage with anthropology without the thesis requirement.”

A thesis often begins with the personal experiences of the student writing it. For example, Brianna Walden ’14, who has enjoyed Zumba as a licensed instructor, researched the popularity of the Latin-inspired dance fitness work and gained a new perspective on it.

Several students who made presentations at the symposium began their theses while studying abroad in Wheaton-sponsored programs.

Quinn Harris ’14 wrote about the role of femininity in the Miss Samoa pageant. She became interested in the subject while studying in Samoa (an island nation in the South Pacific Ocean) and interviewed several former Miss Samoa winners and contestants.

Benjamin Kragen ’14 studied medical practices in Bhutan, a small Buddhist country nestled in the Himalayas. Wheaton has a partnership with Royal Thimphu College, where a small group students spend a semester studying. Kragen shadowed a doctor who uses traditional Bhutanese medicine and interviewed many Bhutanese citizens about their opinions on medicine.

“While students often get ideas for research questions from personal experiences, it is important that they move beyond their personal experience and gain some perspective through the process of research,” said Professor Yllo.—Brian Jencunas '14

Photo by Charles Wang '16