I may have lost my words this year, but our students didn't. In late April, we hosted our annual senior thesis presentation. In a world where debate is too often shaped by hot takes and the character limits of a tweet, this tradition is the one I am most proud of instituting: every April, we invite all of our graduating students, whether they worked at our front desk, interned with our Engaged Scholarship program, or served as a YWLP or MLP Big, to share with us the thesis in which they have invested so much care throughout their final year of college.
Every year, 2-4 students accept this invitation to share their work with us. I always frame the invitation as a rare opportunity to share their work with people who just want to celebrate their project, an audience who genuinely is interested in the research they have done and who, because they don’t have to grade it, can engage with it with a deeper authenticity. We serve lunch, and the soon-to-be graduates have the opportunity to share the piece of their intellectual journey that is most meaningful to them. This is not just for their benefit, though. We get to hear cool research, see our students own their expertise via this capstone experience in the wide range of disciplines in which they’ve majored, and celebrate an accomplishment that we played a small part in supporting.
Each presentation reflects the personality of the presenter. Some bring highly detailed PPT slides, others talk us through their topic and argument. Many have images to enhance their summary: we have seen photos as varied as a ski slope built atop a landfill in Denmark to a still from one of Regina José Galindo’s performance pieces (NSFW). The collective impact reverberates year after year, though: we leave inspired and in awe of the work.
This year, three interns shared their senior theses with us.
Intrigued by a 1762 recording of the denial of petitioner Sarah Lowell’s request for relief in the House of Burgess’s records, Abigail Schofield dove into the archives to explore the status of war widow petitioners in colonial Virginia, demonstrating that war widows were savvy political actors and that the House of Burgesses used their petitions to extend its authority in challenge to the Church. Moonkiran Sidhu shared a deep exploration of the ethics of beauty and its importance. She applied varied philosophical approaches to question the moral value of identifying beauty as distinct from other attributes. Caroline McGahren shared a case study from her thesis on Guatemalan women’s art and activism, introducing us to the work of Regina José Galindo. She focused on analyzing Galindo’s performance in “Tierra” as a critique of the Guatemalan military’s scorched earth campaign against the Indigenous people and their land.
This was the beginning of our goodbyes to the class of 2023. Much has been written about the ways that their time on Grounds was shaped by multiple tragedies and challenges. All of that, of course, is true, and we honor it.
But we don't want to reduce their time on grounds to those hardships. That is why we are so grateful that we had opportunities over the past few weeks to celebrate their accomplishments. The YWLP and MLP Bigs gave their time all year to mentor students through the wonderfully awkward time that is middle school. Our interns hosted a highly successful holiday market in December, coordinated the second year of our pan-University slate of Women's History Month programming in March, and helped to relaunch the Black Womanhood in College Workshop in April. They read books, they asked questions, they debated current issues over French fries, they chatted over tea, they used their time to explore who they are meant to be and to lay the foundation they will build their life on.
At our Graduation Open House, we corded the graduates, recognizing their commitment to our work, before sending them off to the Commencement weekend festivities. Amidst tears and congratulations, the same sentence was repeated over and over: “You will always belong here.” Graduates, we will follow your next steps, and we look forward to welcoming you back when you visit Grounds.