By Fleming Smith
On Monday, October 19 in the McGriff Alumni House, five Sewanee students presented their research from last summer as Biehl Fellows. With the Biehl International Research Fellowship, created by Carl Biehl (C’32) in 1991, juniors and seniors majoring in the social sciences can pursue research in a non-English-speaking country of his or her choice. This past summer, Dave Dermon IV (C’16), Jessie Hook (C’17), Brooke Irvine (C’16), Jinni Tran (C’16), and Dori Wilson (C’16) all went to various countries and finished independent research projects on topics related to their majors and personal histories.
Dermon, a History and German double major, traveled to Germany during the summer and investigated “Diplomacy and the Republic of Letters in Early Modern Europe.” The Republic of Letters was an international community of intellectuals across Europe and America in the late 17thand 18th centuries. Much of Dermon’s work focused on reading letters stored by important personages of this community. “The first several letters I tried working with, each one took me about a week to work through…by the end of that, I could do [a letter] in the course of one day,” said Dermon. A major figure in his investigation was Heinrech Wilhelm Ludolf, an important facilitator of communication in the Republic of Letters. “[Ludolf] is worth exploring much more so, and it’s something I’ll be continuing to work with throughout my senior history thesis,” Dermon said in conclusion.
An Environmental Art and Humanities major, Hook, ventured into Guatemala to study “Climate Change and Guatemalan Coffee Culture.” She was interested in the effect climate change has on coffee growers, particularly small farmers. For her work, Hook conducted several interviews with locals in Spanish and worked with students from the University of Denver in dendrochronology, the study of tree-ring dating. Her research suggests that cooperations between farmers is the best way of combating the climate change. “These changes are something that a lot of farmers are very aware of, however they don’t have the resources to adapt to the changes that are presented,” Hook said. “I have learned that coffee is far, far more than a simple cup. It is a complex system, a livelihood, an art form, it’s just this vast array of things that are easily tipped over by a change in the environment.”
Irvine, an Anthropology major, pursued the topic of “Agriculture and Education in Rural Haiti.” Her research attempted to answer the question of whether or not formal education in Haiti was hurting agricultural traditions, particularly through the “brain drain” phenomenon, an event where educated individuals often leave rural backgrounds for more urban areas or a different country altogether. Education also often means family separations. “Life in Haiti is difficult, and due in part to structural forces, it’s even harder to be a rural nation farmer…giving your child the ability to make money by doing something else provides financial security to the family as a whole,” said Irvine. One separated family involved two parents whose three-year-old child lives hours away with his aunt in order to go school, only able to return home during vacations. Irvine acted as a participant observer and held informal interviews to learn more about the influences of educational opportunities through interaction with rural families.
A Political Science and Spanish double major, Tran traveled to Vietnam to study the “Political Mobilization of Civilians During the Vietnam War.” Vietnamese herself, Tran described how this research allowed her to give new meaning to stories she heard while growing up. She conducted interviews in Vietnamese with over thirty-five participants, many of whom were afraid to talk about a topic that remains controversial in Vietnam. “Many people were afraid that I was working for the American government, that I was a spy,” Tran said with a laugh. Her interviews helped her research the effects of culture, economic status, class, education, and other factors on a person’s identification with either North or South Vietnam. “From this project, I realized that the violence of war corrupts both sides and only by the virtue of diverse representation can we mediate the tension, the separation, and the misconceptions that still exist today,” explained Tran.
Wilson, an Economics Major, examined “The Economic Effects of Returning Church Property to the Order of Saint Augustine’s Control in Czech Communities.” In the 1950’s, the Communist government confiscated religious property, much of which has now been restituted. Wilson investigated the positive and economic impacts of such restitution in the modern-day Czech Republic, looking at different monasteries and their economic health before and after being returned to the Order of Saint Augustine. Results varied, but Wilson concluded that the Order should sell more of its property, as it can no longer afford the upkeep of its current holdings. “Restitution has increased economic benefits overall [with exceptions]…but the Augustinians themselves have had a lot of trouble with this transition,” said Wilson.
Rising juniors and seniors can apply to a Biehl Fellow for this summer by March 1.