Dr. Sheldon Ekland-Olson, Sociology
Briefly describe your project.
Wars have persisted since the beginnings of human society, but in the 20th century certain wars have escalated with the intent of exterminating entire groups and populations. Instances include the Armenian Genocide, the Holocaust, Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge, Iraq and the Kurds, and most recently in Rwanda and Srebrenica. I focus on the latter two and ask why some civil wars and ethnic conflicts escalate while others do not.
How did you become involved in research?
I took a class during the spring semester of my freshman year that dealt with ethical dilemmas. A major theme in the course was genocide. This initially sparked my interest in the topic, but it was only during the spring semester of my sophomore year whenever I took an upper division honors seminar concerning the same topic with the same professor. After completing an intensive research project, I knew that I wanted to write a thesis concerning genocide. To this end, I applied for the Humanities Honors Program because it best suited my academic ambitions and interests. That same professor is now my thesis advisor. I took the class during my first year almost as an after thought, mostly because it had a cool title, and it proved to be the most important class I could have ever taken.
What was the most rewarding part of your research experience?
During the summer of 2010, I worked with a non-profit, non-governmental organization called Global Youth Connect in Bosnia-Herzegovina. They specialize in reconciliation and social justice projects in post-conflict society with an emphasis on transitional justice and human rights. Though the academic side of research is rewarding intellectually and academically, it was only during my time spent in Bosnia-Herzegovina that I began to truly emphathize with those who have experienced trauma due to conflict. With GYC, we spent a substantial amount of time working with youth from various ethnic groups, which proved emotionally draining yet timelessly rewarding.
What surprised you during the research process?
The research process is extremely demanding. Going into it, I assumed that a thesis would be similar to writing a very large research paper. This is true, but only to a very superficial point. I was unaware of the demands of serious academic rigor, including knowing your audience, looking for potential places of publication, and a myriad of other aspects unique to research. However, I was delightfully surprised to learn that research is a social, and not necessarily an individual activity. It is comforting to know not only that others are going through the same process – experiencing the same pain and triumphs implicit in research – but research communities offer an invaluable source of ideas and feedback. Without the help of others, research would prove difficult, if not impossible, both for your ideas, but more importantly for health.
How has participating in research affected your undergraduate experience?
Undergraduate research has proved the most rewarding and valuable experience I have ever undertaken. As I have mentioned earlier, if it were not for undergraduate research, I would have not gone to Bosnia-Herzegovina. The GYC program exposed me to a number of opportunities in the international sector that I was previously unaware of, including the United States Foreign Service, civil and volunteer services, and various international organizations. I now know there is a constructive future with an international relations degree outside of academia or law school, which proves especially useful when answering that pesky question, “So what are you going to do with that?” Additionally, undergraduate research has opened many opportunities on campus, such as participation in the Junior Fellows, Humanities Honors Program, and the Bridging Disciplines program. Being exposed to like-minded faculty and students is invaluable at such a large university.
How do you think getting involved in research will be helpful to you in the future?
Past the obvious benefits gained from research such as discipline, refinement of researching and writing skills, and a general increase in knowledge over broad and specific topics, research has indelibly changed who I am as a person. Passionate involvement in a single topic requires rigor past only taking classes. Having been empowered by the research process, I now apply that same vigor to other areas of life. If I can successfully complete a thesis, then I am prepared to tackle any problem in the future, whether in a career, travels, or further academic pursuits.
What advice would you give incoming students about getting involved in research?
Don’t write a thesis because you think it will get you ahead in a career or applying for graduate school, or because your parents want you to do it. Only undertake research for the right reasons, which extends further than simply an academic interest in the topic. You must truly love your field of study, believe that it is important, and that you can make beneficial impact to academic conversations or human life in general. Otherwise, research will be a miserable experience. Samantha Power, author from A Problem in Hell: America in the Age of Genocide, said it best when she spoke to our group at Srebrenica, “Writing a book or dissertation should be undertaken only if the thought of living without it seems unbearable.”