As the academic year comes to an end and summer is right around the corner, many seniors are busily wrapping up their thesis projects after months of research, reading and writing. For some, the thesis is more than a capstone academic project – it becomes a journey of self-discovery and understanding.
Jacqueline Fernandez Vela, a double major in international relations and Latin American Studies, is finishing her thesis focused on Latina immigrants and how citizenship, gender, income status, employment and motherhood intersect.
The topic is deeply personal to Fernandez-Vela who is undocumented and came to this country with her mother at the age of 4 to join her father in Santa Ana, California.
“Most of the women I interviewed are mothers,” she says. “It’s very empowering, listening to what they did for us, they’re so loving in their sacrifices and what they did for their family. Many sacrificed their own ambition and goals, not because they wanted to, but because they needed to think about the family unit -- and they’re not resentful about it.”
Influenced by her own experience and looking at her mother’s and aunts’ stories of migration and sacrifice, Fernandez-Vela’s thesis shines a light on women’s struggles, which she says are often eclipsed in the scholarly work on immigration which tends to focus on men’s experiences.
Fernandez-Vela says she had already explored different aspects of her thesis through Dean of Students Miriam Feldblum’s politics class on immigration, Professor Gilda Ochoa’s Introduction to sociology class and Professor April Mayes’ class on women and politics in Latin America. She also credits Mayes and Professor Miguel Tinker Salas as instrumental in providing support and guidance as thesis readers through the academically rigorous and personal nature of her thesis.
Fernandez-Vela hopes to become an immigration lawyer to help parents and their children navigate the legalization process in this country.
Through her thesis, Vela presented the issue of immigration as a human issue, and not just an economic one, as is often portrayed by the media or politics. “Immigrant rights are human rights and that’s why I bring it up in my thesis.”
The son of Vietnamese immigrants, sociology major Tom Trieu says his thesis was inspired by his experiences struggling to find a balance between the pressures of his traditional Vietnamese upbringing and mainstream American culture. This led him to deal with a sense of distance from his parents and elders, and feelings of isolation followed him to Pomona College, as he tried to find his place. He looks at the importance of friendships and social networks built among children of immigrants as support systems, specifically for Vietnamese American students.
“It’s about straddling two worlds,” says Trieu, who points to Professor Hung Cam Thai’s mentorship and Immigration and the Second Generation class as highly influential in his research.
“You have to negotiate to figure out ‘how do I fit in?’ In my thesis, I found out people don’t fit anywhere, there’s constant displacement because of their racial status: at home they’re very Vietnamese and in the classroom they don’t talk about that [being Vietnamese].”
Trieu’s findings proved something he had already suspected. “Second generation [American] students flock to each other. With Vietnamese students there’s an instant connection that can often facilitate those friendships. They have shared experiences, like feeling you don’t belong in both worlds.”
Trieu also found that coming to college has further impacts on children of immigrants. Many feel a desire to reclaim or connect with their ethnic identity in college. Trieu also looked at the power the college as an institution has in constructing social networks for students, like sponsor groups, mentor groups, etc., that play a big role in how students meet and build support systems. Trieu, who is part of Posse and active with the Asian American Resource Center (AARC), was also part of a group of Vietnamese students who helped resurrect the Vietnamese Student Association at The Claremont Colleges.
Next, Trieu will pursue a Ph.D. in sociology at UC Berkeley, where he plans to continue to look at issues of race, ethnicity and second generation immigrants.
Mayowa Ige is an environmental analysis major who looked at the devastating oil spills that have been affecting her home country of Nigeria for decades.
Ige focused on one of the worst ongoing environmental crises and conflicts in the world: decades of oil extraction in the Niger Delta that have resulted in environmental, social and political problems for the people of that region, while also exploring her Nigerian identity through the history and social movements of her home country.
“I found out that the the same magnitude of the oil spill in the Gulf a few years ago has been happening in Nigeria every year for the past 50 years. The whole ecosystem has been affected and the people there live in abject poverty. From satellite images, you see that everything is just black, black streams, black land, no trees.”
The culprits, she says, are foreign oil companies allowed to exploit Nigeria’s resources with little-to-no safety regulations since the 1960s. While the scope of the problem is great, it primarily affects minority ethnic groups in the southern region of Nigeria. Ige explains that after years of British colonialism pitting ethnic groups against each other, Nigerians today continue to distrust members of other ethnic groups, further challenging efforts to end the conflict in the Niger Delta.
“It’s a monstrosity of oil spills and no one wants to acknowledge it’s happening.”
As a result of her thesis research, Ige found herself calling her mother to discuss new findings, which she says was a “good bonding session for us.” After finishing her thesis last semester, Ige emailed her final copy to her family members in Nigeria to share her knowledge.
Ige plans to work for a tech company in Silicon Valley after graduation, but hopes to continue on to graduate school to keep working on environmental issues in the future.
For English major Michelle Annarose Schultz, wanting to understand more about her background was also an important reason behind her thesis project. Schultz’s thesis looks at literary works that explore the mixed identities of being biracial, specifically what it means to be both Black and Jewish.
In her three-chapter thesis, Schultz analyzes three works, including James McBride’s “Color of Water,” Rebecca Walker’s “Black, White and Jewish,” and Danzy Senna’s “Caucasia,” that look at what it’s like growing up Black and Jewish through different lenses.
“It’s personal,” explains Schultz. “My dad is white and Jewish and my mom is Black, so when I first read Rebecca Walker’s [daughter of author Alice Walker] book, I identified with a lot of things.”
The process came with some insights for Schultz. “I realized how little I knew about my parents’ own history, and I think that’s something that I’d like to go back to in my own time to ask questions about where we come from. On my Jewish side, I don’t have that much knowledge, so that’s something I’ll be doing moving forward.”
Schultz didn’t come to Pomona as a declared English major, but thanks to the interdisciplinary nature of the liberal arts, her journey through English was not only enjoyable but personally rewarding. She cites her advisor Professor Joseph Jeon’s classes, in which he would not only assign literary works but would also add economic, globalization and race theory readings to the mix.
“I was tentative to declare English. I was worried I would have to write a thesis on Shakespeare or some other canonical text, but after Professor Jeon’s class, I realize that it’s really more open than just the English canon.”
Schultz has interned with production companies in the entertainment field and plans to go into television development in comedy.
"It's been a validating experience to find reflections of myself in the texts I encounter, and it's been equally awesome to see other seniors explore topics that are very personal to them."