a hospital emergency room, the computer lab was the same artificial brightness
day or night. The anxious colony of Pomona College seniors who had called
this place home for days on end looked pale and waxy from cramped hours
in front of keyboards, in the glow of monitors. For weeks at a time, the
only visible changes were the positioning of the crushed Coke cans and
sometimes a new chest-high stack of library books.
These hermits of the computer lab were here for one
simple reason--the thing Pomona seniors speak of with a grimace and a
sigh, in terms generally reserved for the removal of wisdom teeth--the
A daunting rite of passage, the senior thesis is a practice
both venerated and dreaded. In general, it belongs to a larger class of
Pomona's curriculum requirements called senior exercises, intended to
be the culmination of eight semesters of work and tuition payments. Whether
a thesis, a research paper or an art project, the senior exercise is designed
to tie up loose ends and ultimately to lead somewhere new. Although theses
are required for only 11 of the 42 majors offered at the College, they
are an option in nearly all and have come to be regarded as the paradigm
of the Senior Exercise--a fact that is set in high relief by the intensity
with which the thesis is approached by students and professors alike.
Professor Deena Gonzalez, who has advised theses in
history and women's studies, describes the academic components of writing
a thesis as "utterly critical to the liberal arts."
"I am impressed by the dedication and sincerity of effort
put forth by these seniors," she says. "They are applying for jobs, graduate
or professional schools, and handling the thesis research--true juggling
acts--and doing them well!"
Of course, many students would prefer not to juggle
the demands of an original 60-page thesis along with the many other challenges
of senior year. But for those who do--whether by requirement or by choice--it
is an experience that frequently yields pride and confidence, and occasionally
even a start in a career.
Recent alumna Ashley Grimes '00 proudly recalls her
senior thesis in Public Policy Analysis as the crowning achievement of
her experience at Pomona. Titled "World War MP3," her work examined the
regulation of MP3s and the Napster debate. "In retrospect, it is something
that really made me grow," she says. "It gives you something to show for
your college career, and doing it under so much pressure, you gain a lot
of confidence in your academic abilitiesÉ It's like you just went to battle
and there's your medal of honor."
For those still on the battlefield, Grimes' rewards
are still too distant to be contemplated with much satisfaction, but most
would agree that the thesis is much more than just another paper. In fact,
that's one reason why it's so stressful.
"It's real," says Sahar Rooholamini '01--who is writing
about the effects of baby formulas on brain development, a topic that
stemmed from research she did while abroad in Zimbabwe. "It's my future."
Amid the stress of writing something so substantial,
Rooholamini finds delight in what she is doing because it is so completely
her own. "I really enjoy writing it," she says. "It's not just regurgitating
what I know; it is bringing my experiences to the science world. It's
proved to me that science is very subjective."
For Gretchen Langmaid '01--writing a demanding two-semester
thesis on gender differences and displaced aggression, examining such
instances as the Columbine High School tragedy--this is a rare opportunity
to be a trailblazer in the field of psychology. " I feel like a pioneer,"
she says. "Until now I haven't had the opportunity to be involved in something
so new and exciting. This has the potential to be published. It's very
Ultimately, the thesis is a chance for Pomona seniors
to apply what they have learned in their major to a topic of personal
interest. The result is often a transcendent process of writing and researching,
and one that takes precedence over the rest of a senior's life. Julie
Kern '01, a Psychology major, views her two-semester thesis project as
her final opportunity to "take your favorite aspects from all the classes
you've taken and blend them together into a final culmination. It's definitely
stressful, but it will be great to have a final product."
Over the years, theses have been published on almost
every topic imaginable, but students still take pride in finding new and
challenging topics--in many cases, topics that grow out of their own personal
experience. T.J. Fechser '01, born and raised in Las Vegas, is writing
an unorthodox thesis on gambling--more specifically, the socio-economic
impact of riverboat gaming in Tunica County, Mississippi. Fechser describes
the experience of researching and writing his thesis as, "the toughest
academic experience I've had at Pomona, but also the most interesting.
I've traveled a lot, interviewed a lot of interesting people, and I've
definitely done a lot of writing."
As Professor Gonzalez puts it, what Fechser will have
produced by graduation will be "one of those undergraduate markers of
major importance that pushes you to think beyond the borders of a classroom
Given so much importance, it's hardly surprising that
theses often supercede other classes, social life and normal daily routine.
In retrospect, however, these sacrifices add poignancy to memories of
an experience that was, at the least, meaningful, and at most, life-defining.
Jackie Curnutte '00 says her thesis on education policy
was not just a culmination of her major, but also a glimpse into a possible
future career. "Symbolically it is the consummation of the liberal arts
degree," she says, "but in many cases it is also the spark that paves
the way for future interests and career paths." --Nick Grudin '01