Three seniors finish yearlong independent study program

by Marina Shkuratov | 4/16/14 6:40pm

This year’s senior fellows, Rena Sapon-White ’14, Aaron Colston ’14 and Miriam Kilimo ’14, are currently finishing their projects and preparing to present them publicly on May 6. Instead of taking classes, these students have spent the past year conducting in-depth research in destinations from Poland to Kenya.

The 84-year-old senior fellowship program allows participants, who apply in the spring of their junior year, to devote a full year of study to a large-scale project in lieu of completing other academic requirements.

Senior fellowships take on various forms, from theater projects to creative writing, program director Margaret Funnell said. While students can pursue work that could not be achieved in a traditional thesis, she said, they also continue to benefit from the guidance of a College advisory program.

“There is no such thing as a typical senior fellowship,” she said.

Sapon-White said she decided to pursue a documentary film after visiting her father in Poland for five weeks. In Warsaw, she interviewed a dozen people about their Jewish identities and wanted to learn more about what it meant to be Jewish in Poland today. Because World War II and communism forced many religious Jews to leave the country, those remaining in Poland today confront a “confusing dual understanding” of what it means to be both Jewish and Polish, Sapon-White said.

Sapon-White quickly realized that her 12 interviews did not paint the full picture, she said, so she returned to Poland for three months as part of her senior fellowship. After travelling around the country and attending various conferences, Sapon-White conducted 33 interviews and took 60 to 70 hours of footage.

Her film takes a deep look at the relationship between “insiders and outsiders” in the Jewish community, she said, a dichotomy that is difficult to define because there are many Jewish people who lack a Polish identity and many Polish people who discovered their Jewish identities later in life.

In his project, Colston combined poetry and historical research. Having attended a small Catholic high school in Los Angeles, Colston said he has always been interested in the ways old institutions, including Catholic schools, have addressed the contemporary needs of underserved communities.

Colston focused on the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the first women of African descent to successfully start a religious order in the U.S. He delved into historical sources about the group, supplementing missing pieces of the story with his own poetry.

“I fill in the silences with poetry to sort of illuminate how our ways of doing history kind of leave us with this mystery of our knowledge of the past,” he said. “It’s not just important to know what we can know about sources, but to also know what we cannot know.”

Kilimo’s advisor Sergei Kan, an anthropology and Native American studies professor, said Kilimo’s project focuses on the role of interethnic friendships in Kenya, a country often divided by politicized ethnic violence. Kilimo, who grew up in Kenya, spent her summer there conducting interviews with members of her own generation, he said.

Kilimo did not respond to requests for comment.

Kilimo’s project incorporates field work and observation, aspects of a traditional anthropology thesis, Kan said, but she has more closely studied the history and demographics of the country and its people. Kilimo has found that the role of ethnicity varies based on the history of different Kenyan areas, he said.

Kan said Kilimo’s work is unique because she is writing in a style accessible to people outside academia.

Faculty are often frustrated that Dartmouth’s short terms do not allow students to produce substantive works, Kan said, but senior fellowships address this problem by allowing participants to more thoroughly explore topics of interest.

Film and media studies professor Bill Phillips, Sapon-White’s advisor, said in an email that the program demonstrates “the best that education has to offer” by cutting bureaucracy and allowing students to focus on their passions.

The program, however, can be a “gamble,” Phillips said. Because it replaces several terms of Dartmouth courses, students must ensure that their interest in the topic justifies a full year of study.

Funnell said the commitment is the right fit for only a “very limited number of students,” as the College now offers many more traditional opportunities to complete interdisciplinary work. During her 10 years as program director, Funnell said the number of students participating in the program has ranged from two to 10.

Gerald Kaminsky ’61, a former senior fellow, has established an endowment to fund the program, Funnell said, which covers participants’ costs. Additionally, fellows are not required to pay tuition for their final term at Dartmouth.

The application deadline for next year’s senior fellows was April 9, and applicants will find out about acceptances in May, Funnell said.