Senior fellows pursue interests with independent study

by Kathrin Weston | 11/10/97 6:00am

While many seniors are laying the groundwork this term for their senior theses, a select few Dartmouth students are engaged in a more ambitious form of research: the senior fellowship.

In choosing to become senior fellows, five students -- Brian Cina '98, Martin Kessler '98, Elena Reilly '97, Aaron Russo '98 and Onche Ugbabe '98 -- have committed themselves to going beyond the bounds of normal coursework to explore a given area of interest within their majors.

Once they have met their distributive requirements, Senior Fellows are free to spend three full terms on their project, for which they receive credit equivalent to three courses.

Candidates for the program, who apply for the fellowship during their junior year, must present a solid proposal of "intellectual value" -- a tight functional plan for their independent research projects, said Assistant Dean of the Faculty Sandy Gregg.

In addition, those awarded fellowships usually have unique talents and interests as well as a burning passion for their project, she said -- and this year's group is no different.

The working titles include "Representing Environments with Sound: Connections between Urban Dance Culture and Tribal Dance Ritual;" "Justice for the Poor Revisited: The Legal Aid Society of New York City and the Civil Legal Services Movement, 1960-1995;" "Venus and Adonis: a Masque for the Entertainment of the King;" "Agricultural Transformations within the Maya Communities of Western Guatemala" and "A Study in Musical Fusion."

Senior Fellows are ultimately selected by the President of the College on the recommendation of the Faculty Committee on Senior Fellowships -- which is composed of the Dean of the College and two professors from each of the arts and sciences divisions.

At the end of the fall term, the advisers and the Committee will evaluate and honestly appraise the students' progress. If the senior fellows fail to live up to their expectations, the Committee will withdraw the fellowships.

Fellows receive academic support and backing from a faculty adviser in their field, as well as from an adviser who is not a member of the Dartmouth community. The Senior Fellowship Committee provides financial assistance for research as well.

The Committee awards no more than 10 fellowships a year -- 12 in extraordinary circumstances -- but in recent years the number of applications has been down, Gregg said. But while the number of senior fellows has wavered between eight and 12 over the last two decades, it has never surpassed eight since 1992.

Cina said that the program is neither poorly publicized, nor is Dartmouth less intellectual than it was in former years.

His explanation for the comparatively low application rate is that many candidates for fellowships simply drop out while trying to design a functional, meaningful plan.

Cina, who grew up in New Jersey, said frequenting the New York City party scene and becoming a DJ were major parts of his life before he came to the College.

He said he found a spiritual connection between his urban industrial environment and the urban dance culture he grew to know well, and added that for him, God is inherent in everything.

To Cina, electric dance music is the heartbeat of the urban industrial environment he grew up in.

"Music just comes to me instinctively," according to the music major who plays the organ, the trombone, and a Native American flute and also performs with the World Percussion Orchestra.

"I found my niche in music," he said. "It is a mirror of the environment and transforms it into something greater."

For his project, he spent the summer at the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in North Dakota, as well as on the Navajo Nation Reservation in Arizona.

His aim was to not only study the environment, but to see it through the eyes of the people indigenous to that area and to experience "nature in action" through sound.

Cina wanted to expand his views on the environment by contrasting his perspectives with those of the reservation's residents in a give-and-take exchange, learning about their views on the role of humans in nature and especially by learning about their music.

"In urban industrial environments, Techno or House music is the heartbeat of the earth," he said. "For Native Americans as well, their heartbeat is the beat of the music, the drum. The electrical drum is the only difference."

Over the summer, Cina, who came to Dartmouth intending to become a doctor, gathered samples of "nature sounds," such as children singing, birds and hot springs. He wove these together into varied tapestries of sound, which he calls "sound collages."

He is now composing a suite of seven pieces, one of which, "Sunrise," he has already finished. The recording will be played together with a live quintet of wind instruments.

Cina said his project is going well, and he aims to write the rough draft of at least one piece every week. His music is to listen to and reflect on, he said, and, in late May when all the senior fellows must present their projects, his will culminate in a concert open to the public.

Reilly, a member of the class of 1997 who took a year off to become involved in Americorps, has also traveled far to research the topic of her project.

An anthropology major whose parents spent many years living in Guatemala, Reilly first became interested in agriculture in the Mayan communities of the Guatemalan highlands when she participated in the Mellon Fellowship Program.

"It is basically the same topic," she said, "only more complex."

She stressed the importance of having a very specific, functional proposal when applying, and said she applied for a fellowship because she wanted more than a senior thesis, a program that would enable her to spend more time in Guatemala.

Through an Organic Farming Organization, she had the opportunity to live in Mayan communities, where, she said, electricity is not available, but contrary to common opinion, "The people aren't unhappy all the time."

There she learned about organic farming and worked in different Mayan communities. Reilly said she had a good idea of what to expect when she went to live in Guatemala, and added that she became good friends with the family whose home she shared.

Her project looks at environmental problems from a human perspective and incorporates all the issues facing indigenous communities as the world is modernized. In order to see how a food-based economy could be integrated into a capitalist economy, she studied "subsistence farmers" who grow crops to support their families, and the effects that American agribusiness is having on their lives.

Some American companies contract with these farmers and import the vegetables, she explained, and pesticides and chemicals are causing health problems in the Mayan communities.

Subsistence farming is turning into export agriculture, she said, adding that many of the farmers have encountered considerable financial problems.

Reilly will return to Guatemala in January, and her project will culminate with a paper and a "dynamic slide show", during which she plans to play recorded interviews with Mayan farmers.

At present she is glad she decided on a senior fellowship, but added "I'm in the fun part now. The tough part is bringing it all together."

With the first critical appraisal of her project looming ahead, Reilly is hard at work. "It's good to be really into what you're doing," she said "It takes the fear of deadlines away."

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