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Exceptionally examined

Wheaton seniors win top prizes for presentations at ‘The Examined Life’ undergraduate conference

Three Wheaton students were recognized for their exceptional research—exploring the influence of capitalism on rap music, Buddhism and radical environmentalism—at a liberal arts conference held March 23–24 at Lebanon Valley College in central Pennsylvania.

Natasha Shrestha ’19, Sophia Darby ’17 and Elise Grape ’17 accompanied Visiting Assistant Professor of Religion Jordan Miller to “The Examined Life: An Undergraduate Conference in the Liberal Arts,” an annual event that gives students an opportunity to share their work with peers. This year’s call for papers centered on the theme of “The Cultural Politics of Memory,” seeking research, art and other projects that explore “the diverse ways and forms in which memory shapes our social existence.”

Darby won one of the conference’s two prizes for exceptional papers, and Grape won the prize for best overall paper.

Miller said he was impressed by all three students’ performances at the conference.

“Not only did two of our students get recognition for the best presentations at the conference, but Sophia, Elise and Natasha also were conversation-leaders in their colleagues’ panels,” Miller said. “They led the charge with asking intelligent and generous questions after their peers' presentations and were the go-to three to rescue awkward Q&A silences.”

Shrestha, who is developing an independent major that combines political science, sociology and other fields, presented a paper that examines religious symbolism, violence and capitalism in contemporary rap music.

Darby’s paper explores Buddhist identity in America and the dynamics of power present between Buddhism, globalization and capitalism.

“The critical question addressed in this paper is: Is American Buddhism being swallowed by the system of global market capitalism or is it subverting the system?” said Darby, a double major in religion and music. “The paper explores this question through the theoretical framework of practice, embodiment and emplacement.”

Darby said she felt each of their papers was well received at the conference, noting that the audience asked engaging questions after their presentations.

“There were two Christian pastors interested in interfaith work, who attended the conference, who thanked me after my presentation for shedding light on the use of Buddhist concepts such as Zen in the advertising industry,” Darby said.

Grape’s paper explores the relationship between radical environmentalism and capitalistic consumption of the natural world through what she calls “an economy of hate”—a term that recognizes the dark tendencies of radical environmentalists to use violence and property destruction as they attempt to inspire change.

“An economy of hate is a body of affective emotion that exists along the avenues of money, operating within an us/them dynamic. This is the relationship that radical environmentalism navigates, as it attempts to subvert the capitalist regime by attacking monetary structures, and it is motivated by emotion and compulsion instead of rationality,” said Grape, a double major in biology and religion.

Grape said she was a little anxious about presenting her paper, a work in progress that is “radical, experimental and quite alternative in structure and form.” But the response was encouraging, and she plans to continue developing her ideas as a senior thesis or similar project.

“I came into this conference unsure of whether I had succeeded in achieving my goal when writing this. I knew I was attempting to create something very academically ambitious, but I did not know if these ideas had been too convoluted by the sheer scope of the connections that I was trying to make,” Grape said. “This recognition shows that here, my experimental ambition paid off, and that I am working on something unique and important.”

She also enjoyed hearing what ideas students from other institutions were exploring, including some topics with which she was completely unfamiliar.

“That is the real value of learning opportunities like this: We network ideas as much as we network with people, and create context to understand our own works and how they fit in with themes of study,” she said.