Honors Program: ‘One of the Most Rewarding Experiences of My Undergraduate Career’

Honors Program: ‘One of the Most Rewarding Experiences of My Undergraduate Career’

Jolie BoulosHonors student Jolie Boulos with Dean David Figlio 

Thirteen School of Education and Social Policy honors students were recognized for rigorous and thoughtful scholarship by Dean David Figlio and faculty members during the first online ceremony and poster presentation session in School history.

Figlio acknowledged how hard the students worked, especially during a global pandemic, and thanked the families, friends, and faculty that tuned in to the presentations for their support.

“We expected a lot from you, and you should be proud of this journey,” Figlio told the students. “You honed your passions and critical thinking skills, your ability to evaluate evidence, and your skill at communicating to a variety of audience in a range of different ways. These tools will serve you well in this rapidly changing world.”

The 2020 SESP honors students include Jack Benjamin, Jolie Boulos, Reena Burt, Emily Coffee, Frances Hartnett, Ronni Hayden, Samantha Milstein, Chris Parker, Jordyn Ricard, Sophie Rodosky, Andrew Wayne, Caroline Werner, and Hillary Wolff.

Ricard, who earned 12 Undergraduate Research Awards and Conference Travel Grants worth nearly $13,000 over four years ­– a Northwestern University record – also received the Alumni Leadership Award. Next fall she plans to attend graduate school at Harvard University and work as a research assistant.

“I was especially impressed with the way the students gracefully adjusted their projects as a result of COVID-19,” said Program Director Sarah White, a learning sciences doctoral student. “They’ve learned how to craft coherent and convincing arguments, solve problems, and communicate the importance of their work to others.”

The SESP Honors program uses a unique cohort model that provides layers of support for students. Participants meet regularly as part of White’s seminar, and in addition to working with two advisers, they also connect with peers who are facing similar struggles and successes.

To be eligible, students must have a 3.5 GPA at the end of winter quarter during their junior year. During the spring, they can take a thesis proposal design course, Advanced Research Methods, where they learn how to review previous studies, identify research questions, and design an independent research project tailored to their interests. Over the course of the following school year, they refine their questions and project design.

The experience often also leads to self-reflection; by the end of the year, they know how they work best and what motivates them when they’re facing obstacles. “They’re prepared for a number of possible careers after they leave Northwestern, including industry and non-profit positions, not just research in academia,” said White, who was worked with the honors program for four years.

The senior thesis topics covered a broad array of interests, from identity development in college students who pass as white or who identify as queer and Christian, to the effectiveness of a new communication aid for children on the autism spectrum.

Other faculty and staff in the honors program included newly minted PhD Emily Hittner – who now works as the director of research for the dating app Hinge -- served as the teaching assistant, and Shelena Johnson, SESP senior academic adviser, was the administrative coordinator.

Many of the honors students present their finished work during the Undergraduate Research and Arts Expo in the spring, winning several awards.

Ricard won the “Best Social Science and Journalism Presentation” award for her talk, "Life Stress and Facial Expressions of Emotion in Individuals at Clinical High Risk for Psychosis."

Samantha Millstein, Jolie Boulos, and Sophie Rodosky received honorable mention for their presentations. 

Reena Burt placed first in the Social Science and Journalism category for her poster, "The I in Community: Social Trust for First-Year Students."

“After a full year of work and writing 36,486 words/ 116 pages (i.e. a short book), this was one of the most rewarding experiences of my undergraduate career,” Boulos posted on Facebook. “I’m incredibly thankful to my advisers, family, and friends who have supported me along the way!! I’m especially thankful to the people who participated in my study, without whom this project would not have been possible.”

Read more about individual honor student theses:

Jack Benjamin

JACK benjaminAdvisers: Jolie Matthews, assistant professor of learning sciences; and David Rapp, associate professor of learning sciences and psychology.

“Good News and Bad News: College Students' Perceptions of the Political News Media”

Benjamin looked at the news habits, perceptions, and preferences of a younggeneration of voters trying to stay informed. He found that trust in news publications, partly determined by the students' own political affiliation, was connected to the reputation of an outlet’s partisan biases. “Dismay over the perceived increase of biased political commentary in reporting has eroded trust in many news outlets, despite the appeal of eye-catching and entertaining opinion segments,” he wrote.  His findings could help news organizations and political campaigns learn more about the desires of younger audiences and how distrust in the media stokes polarization.

Jolie Boulos

Jolie BoulosAdvisers: Lilah Shapiro, assistant professor of instruction, and Nitasha Tamar Sharma, associate professor of African American Studies and Asian American Studies.

Thesis: "Are You One of Us? A Qualitative Study of How White-Appearing College Students Make Sense of Their Identities, Find Communities, and Interact with Racial and Ethnic Affinity Spaces”      

Boulos studied how lighter-skinned or white-appearing college students grapple with their identity, find community, and interact with racial and ethnic affinity spaces.  She found that white-appearing students are often uncertain about their identity and “are mainly constructing their racial and ethnic identity via primary caregivers and communities.” These students long for acceptance but are rejected by racial and ethnic communities for not being authentic enough. “This rejection causes participants to diminish their Whiteness and idealize the experiences of people of color as they desire to feel accepted for who they are,” she wrote. Ultimately, most participants leave racial and ethnic communities, finding non-exclusive communities to be more accepting and supportive. Her work provides insight into racial dynamics on college campuses, encouraging universities and affinity groups to stop treating race monolithically.  "The issues raised and results from this study suggest that a nuanced understanding and attention to the intersectionality of identities is needed in order to meet the needs of diverse student populations and move towards true inclusion and access," she said.

Reena  Burt

Reena BurtAdvisers: Mesmin Destin, associate professor of human development and social policy and of psychology; Shirin Vossoughi, assistant professor of learning sciences

Thesis: "The I in Community: Social Trust Among First-Year Students"

Burt’s study used online survey and semi-structured interviews to look at how community and individualism relate to young adults’ faith in others during their first year of college. Her findings highlighted three understudied predictors of social trust – individual and collective values, identity privilege, and empathy – and shed light on how identity impacts social trust in college, a time of transition. Her research could help institutions that seek to create a more trusting environment for all on college campuses.

Emily Coffee

Emily CoffeeAdvisers:  Lilah Shapiro, assistant professor of instruction and Robert Orsi, professor of religious studies
Thesis: “Queer, Christian, and on Campus:  College Culture and the Negotiations of Sexual and Religious Identities for Queer Christian Students”

Coffee looked at sexual and religious identities of queer Christian students from two distinct universities – a midwestern university and an evangelical college. Prior research suggests a simple divide between liberal and conservative contexts; however, after interviewing the 15 participants “it became clear that the narrative is much more complex,” she wrote. Despite Midwestern’s assumed liberalism and Evangelical’s assumed conservatism, her study suggested that across contexts, queer Christian students used their environments, the people around them, and their internal drive “to construct a sexual and religious identity that they are able to engage with and live out both on their campuses and in the world.”     

Frances Hartnett

hartnettAdvisers: Lilah Shapiro, assistant professor of instruction; Regina Logan, assistant professor of instruction.
Thesis: "Seeing is Believing: A Qualitative Study on Invisible Illness and Identity in College Students."           

Hartnett analyzed her interviews with ten students who have “invisible illnesses” or conditions that can be disabling but are aren’t easily seen. She found that getting a diagnosis is often a lengthy process for the invisibly ill and leads to confusion and invalidation. Participants found it difficult to tell others about their health status for fear of being stigmatized. “The surrounding culture at Midwestern University, in addition to society at large, influenced the stigmatization of illness and created a disconnect between participants and their healthy peers,” she wrote. Despite their autonomy at college, participants discussed their parent’s role in their health and illness experience. They also talked about how their illness has influenced their overall self-view, how they have come to terms with their illness, and how they see their health in the future.

Ronni Hayden

ronnie haydenAdvisers: Marcelo Worsley, assistant professor of learning sciences and computer science; Michael Horn, associate professor of learning sciences and computer science.

Thesis: "Design and Implementation of MoodBuddy: Exploration of a Novel Communication Device for Nonverbal Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder in a Therapeutic Day School Setting"

Hayden spent the year building on research that explored a novel way to decrease anxiety and increase communication for nonverbal children on the autism spectrum. She looked at the strengths at weaknesses of MoodBuddy, a stuffed cow that lights up to communicate mood using a four-color scale and found that it fills an important gap and can help children communicate independently in a school setting, thereby decreasing their anxiety.

Samantha Milstein

samantha milsteinAdvisers: Lilah Shapiro, assistant professor of instruction; Wendi Gardner, associate professor of psychology
Thesis: “Who am I Now? A Qualitative Study on Identity Formation and Self-Perception Following Parental Death in Adolescence”

Milstein interviewed current college students who were teenagers when their parents died to see how the experience affected their identity, life-story narrative, and self-perception. She found that during the grieving process, adolescents tend to conceal negative emotions from family and friends, leaving many of them without adequate support, which could contribute to mental health issues upon emerging adulthood. Young adults who lost parents as teens “tend to perceive themselves to have high levels of emotional maturity, a caring nature, independence, and empathy,” she wrote. The adolescents were also more likely to feel vulnerable and more reflective of their role in the world, leading many to try to make a positive impact on the world. “Overall, adolescents illustrate that parental death is not just a tragic life event, but rather a central part of their core being, altering their identity forever,” she wrote. By looking at how the death of a parent interacts with other developmental processes, her research shed light on its impact on an adolescent’s understanding of themselves and the outside world as they transition into emerging adulthood.”

Chris Parker

chris parkerAdvisers: Traci Burch, associate professor of political science; Tabitha Bonilla, assistant professor of human development and social policy

Thesis: “All Aboard! Decision Making, Environmental Concern, and Political Alignment in the New Urbanist Memes for Transit-Oriented Teens Facebook Group”

Parker surveyed nearly 600 participants of the activist group The New Urbanist Memes for Transit-Oriented Teens to study how engaging with meme groups influences political and philosophical beliefs surrounding climate change and transportation usage. They found that access to a transit system, as well as the satisfaction and safety of that mode of transportation, were among the main factors affecting group members’ decisions about use. In addition, politically themed groups can influence members’ political actions and beliefs, according to Parker’s research, which can be used by policy makers to create new transit-based policies and/or alter existing ones to allow for more and better systems.

Jordyn Ricard

jordyn ricardAdvisers: Claudia Haase, assistant professor of human development and social policy; Vijay Mittal, associate professor of psychology.
Thesis: “Life stress and facial expressions of emotion in individuals at clinical high risk for psychosis”

Mounting research suggests links between life stressors, including abuse and bullying, and changes in certain facial expressions in people with psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia. Ricard’s work examined whether this same link could be found prior to the onset of psychosis in high risk individuals. A certified facial coder – or someone who can read facial expressions ­– Ricard used one-minute video recorded clinical interviews to look at the expression of joy. Her results showed reduced joy expressions in the high-risk people when compared to controls. Additionally, having a history of life stress was negatively associated with joy facial expressions in the clinical high-risk group, but not in the control group. Her research can help shed light on the cause of psychosis, given that people with schizophrenia develop symptoms within a short window of time.

Sophie Rodosky

sophie rodoskyAdvisers: Claudia Haase, assistant professor of human development and social policy; Vijay Mittal, associate professor of psychology.

Thesis: “Facial Expressions in Adolescent-Parent Interactions and Links with Anxiety and Depression: A Dyadic Approach”

Rodosky examined the link between facial expressions of emotion with anxiety and depression during a range of videotaped interactions between teens and parents. She found that adolescents’ neutral expressions and parents’ negative expressions were positively associated with adolescents’ and parents’ anxiety and depression. Her results suggest that facial expressions (neutral expressions for adolescents, negative expressions for parents) can be useful markers of potential mental illness, which emphasize the importance of adolescent-parent interactions for anxiety and depression.

Caroline Werner

Carolyn wernerAdvisers: Albert Hunter, professor of sociology; Lilah Shapiro, assistant professor of instruction
Thesis: “Feeling Connected for the Price of a Train Ticket: A Qualitative Study on Individual and Communal Identity on Public Transportation”

Werner examined how riding public transportation intersects with -- and potentially affects -- people’s identities and perceptions of their identities. If cars are the main mode of transportation, how does riding public transportation impact how people feel about themselves? She interviewed Northwestern faculty and staff who either drive or take public transit to work and found that public transportation riders form a community among strangers which they see as positive, and that taking public transportations helps reaffirm an urban identity among riders. Her research helps planners understand how people create notions of community and urbanity.

Andrew Wayne

Andrew wayneAdvisers: Diane Schanzenbach, Margaret Walker Alexander Professor of Human Development and Social Policy and director of the Institute for Policy Research; Martin Thyrsgaard, postdoctoral fellow in finance at Kellogg School of Management,
Thesis: “Opinions in Flux: An Exploration of the Perceptions of Concussions in Youth Sports”

Wayne explored how parents make decisions about enrolling a child in youth sports given the risk of concussion. He also collected data to discern how parents pick a particular sport for their child. The data suggest that many misconceptions exist amongst parents who have a child that actively participates in a youth sport and contemporary concussion statistics may be higher than what is portrayed from the healthcare industry. 

Hillary Wolff  

Hillary WolffAdvisers: Danny Cohen, associate professor of instruction; Alexandra Solomon, lecturer
Thesis: “Let's Talk About Sex...Education: Queer Youth and the Use of Pornography in the Context of Sex Education”

Wolff researched whether sex education and pornography could be an effective way to reform sex education to benefit all students, including LGBTQ youth. Through interviews and surveys, she found that sex education in formal and informal settings can be helpful and harmful to queer identities. Pornography, meanwhile, can be a positive medium for queer youth to learn from and validate their sexual preferences, but is also widely regarded as unrealistic and impractical. Another common trend was feelings of repression and shame. Her results suggest that parents should begin discussing gender and identity around age 6 and progress in content through high school to prevent shame and repression around sex and sexuality from building up. Moreover, “sex education curricula should have dedicated lessons about porn literacy, pleasure, and educating about the LGBTQ community as well as active integration and inclusion of LGBTQ identities in all aspects of sex education, namely the use of contraceptives and protection in LGBTQ relation

By Julie Deardorff
Last Modified: 7/15/20