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Meet SESP’s 2024 Honors Students

June 5, 2024
David Rapp (left), Anna Chen, Nicole Hebert, Hannah Kim, Eden Moore, Yiyang Liu, Kate Rooney, Anna Wittcoff, Kayla Gehrling and Jen Cowhy

Anxiety, identity, and mentorship emerged as key themes for honors students at Northwestern University’s School of Education and Social Policy, who were recognized during a faculty meeting and presented their work at a poster session.

Graduating seniors Anna Chen, Kayla Gehrling, Nicole Hebert, Hannah Kim, Yiyang Liu, Eden Moore, Kate Rooney, and Anna Wittcoff completed the rigorous honors sequence, which requires a 3.5 grade point average by the end of winter quarter during their junior year and includes taking the classes Advanced Research Methods and Senior Honors Seminar and a research project.

Several students turned in award-wining work. Liu and Wittcoff placed first in specific disciplines at the 20th Annual Chicago Area Undergraduate Research Symposium. Moore, an incoming associate for the Boston Consulting Group, took third n the social sciences category at Northwestern’s Undergraduate Research & Arts Expo, co-sponsored by the Office of Undergraduate Research.

“There’s so much work that goes into these projects,” said David Rapp, the Walter Dill Scott Professor and director of undergraduate education, who teaches the Senior Thesis Seminar. “But even more impressive is the way their projects address important theoretical issues in education, human development, and learning. It’s leading-edge work.”

Jen Cowhy-who passed her dissertation defense in June-served as the teaching assistant. Susan Olson, associate dean for student affairs, coordinated the program and several faculty members served as advisors.

Meet our honors students:

chen_400_poster.jpgAnna Chen, Hong Kong
Studied: Social Policy, Cognitive Science
Faculty Advisor: Jolie Matthews, associate professor of learning sciences; Lilah Shapiro, Charles Deering McCormick Distinguished Professor of Instruction; Cynthia Coburn
Thesis: “Favoritism, Stress, and Clout Chasing: Conservatory Experiences of Music Performance Majors”

Chen interviewed 15 students majoring in music performance at Northwestern’s Bienen School of Music to assess their identity, well-being, and relationships. A bassoon player who was briefly enrolled in Bienen before transferring to the School of Education and Social Policy, she discovered research after taking a social policy implementation class with professor Cynthia Coburn and working in Coburn’s lab. She found that the tight-knit relationships fostered in the conservatory environment could feel overwhelming, and that competition for jobs and opportunities emphasizes skills and social comparisons that may cause mental health problems. She also found that the people at “the top” were also struggling; in fact, they almost felt more stress because others were competing for their spots. “The honors project was also a healing process for me,” she said. “No one talks about the stress in performance because you don’t want to be perceived as less good. It was really validating to me.” After graduation Chen is moving to Miami to consult for the logistics company DHL. Before that, however, she’s meeting with administrators at Bienen to discuss her thesis results and potential changes to help students.

Kayla GehrlingKayla Gehrling, Chicago
Studied: Human Development in Context
Advisors: Lilah Shapiro,Charles Deering McCormick Distinguished Professor of Instruction, Claudia Haase, associate professor of human development and social policy
Thesis: “I Just Kind of Thought I Was Different’: An Analysis of Anxiety, Identity, and Social Relationships”

Gehrling, a first-generation, low-income student, felt disconnected from Northwestern during her first three years on campus and nearly dropped out. But before her senior year, she told herself to ‘get engaged.’ She became a resident assistant and pursued a senior honors thesis, despite no prior research experience. “College, for me, really started senior year,” she said. For her project, Gehrling interviewed 16 classmates to see how they managed anxiety disorders­––a diagnosis she also has–– and whether they sought support from the University. Only two of the 16 reached out to Counseling and Psychological Services, in part because they’d heard negative stories about the service. “The senior honors experience made me want to go into school counseling,” said Gehrling, who will pursue a master’s degree at National Louis University. “I’m so happy now. I was going to drop out. Now I’m graduating with honors and going to graduate school.”

Nicole HebertNicole Hebert, Bedford, Mass
Learning and Organizational Change and Economics
“Balancing Act: Exploring the Influence of the Federal Work-Study Program's Impact on College Student Identity, Experience, and Self-Perception”
Faculty Advisors: Lilah Shapiro, Charles Deering McCormick Distinguished Professor of Instruction; Mesmin Destin, associate professor of human development and social policy

Hebert liked her work-study job at Norris but knew others who didn’t have great experiences. So for her honors project, she explored the costs and benefits of the Federal Work Study Program, which offers part-time jobs to students with extensive financial need. She interviewed 15 Northwestern students and found that the environment can increase a sense of belonging, community and self-awareness. But students participating are “removed from the student experience and are placed into a transactional relationship with the University where they are held to higher standards, impacting their experience and potential opportunities.” Research was not on her radar but during her junior year, she thought, “why not try?” because she had a topic she was passionate about. “I spent hours working on this, learning how to research by myself, and with advisors,” she said. “It’s truly a project like no other,” After graduation she’ll be working at CDW Corporation, which provides technology products and services for business, government and education. 

Hannah KimHannah Kim, Lincolnwood, Ill.
Studied: Social Policy and Mathematical Methods in the Social Sciences
Thesis: “Experiences of First Generation and/or Lower Income Students in Higher Education”
Advisors: Shirin Vossoughi, associate professor of learning sciences; Joseph Ferrie, professor of economics, Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences

Kim wanted to see how the college experiences of first-generation, low-income students varied between schools after suspecting that she and her brother, who attends the University of Illinois Champaign Urbana, had vastly different college experiences. She found community is very important for students from underrepresented backgrounds – and having it is both a strength and something students need. Kim will be working as a research assistant with the American Institutes for Research, where she has been an intern for the past year. At Northwestern, she was committee vice chair for the Model United Nations for three years, where she researched everything from cybersecurity and space militarization to athlete mental health and human rights in the Olympics. She came to Northwestern thinking about law school, but shifted towards research after working as a research assistant at Lurie Children’s Hospital during her junior year practicum.

liu_yiyan.jpgYiyang Liu, Chicago
Studied: Human Development in Context and Psychology
Thesis: “A Reflection of Ourselves”: The Role of Self-Insert Fanfiction in Identity Exploration and Expression for Queer and Trans Readers”
Advisors: Jolie Matthews, associate professor of learning sciences; Eva Lam, associate professor of learning sciences; Dan P. McAdams, The Henry Wade Rogers Professor of Psychology and a professor of human development and social policy

Liu explored whether fandom communities and fanfiction can help people understand themselves. Liu explored one genre, called “self-insert fanfiction,” in which fans put themselves in the stories they read or create to experiment with different ways of presenting themselves.  “I learned about my own queer identify through fandom and fanfiction,and it spurred the research project for me,” Liu said. “It’s about rewriting the story in a lot of ways, transforming the narrative especially in spaces where there’s a lot of misrepresentation and under representation of queer and trans identities.” Liu thought she would become a teacher, but her honors experience opened new pathways. “I explored something I’m truly passionate about,” she said. “It helped me see the importance of research from academic standpoint as well as the joy that can come out of it.” Liu plans to travel, decompress, and take a gap year to “discover what I really want to do,” a plan that could include pursuing research.

Eden Moore Eden Moore, Dallas, Texas
Studied: Social Policy and Legal Studies
Thesis: “They Made it Feel Like Anything Was Possible”: Impacts of High School Mentor Relationships on Black Women’s Success in University
Advisors: Tabitha Bonilla, associate professor of human development and social policy; Keira Leneman, assistant professor of instruction.

Moore’s research looked at the impact of high school mentor relationships on Black Women’s success in college. It was something she had experience with; as a Black student at a mostly white high school, she felt like she could go to her advisor for anything. Her results suggested that mentor relationships positively influenced the college experience, especially when it came to personal accountability and relationship-building. The findings underscored the importance of increased access to mentors with whom Black girls can identify. An incoming associate for Boston Consulting Group, Moore hopes to stay close to education policy. “I’d love to come back to academia,” she said.

rooney_kate-400.jpgKate Rooney, Highwood, Ill.
Studied: Human Development in Context
Advisors: Lilah Shapiro, Charles Deering McCormick Distinguished Professor of Instruction; Eva Lam, associate professor of learning sciences
Thesis: “‘It Stays With You’: Examining the Role of Identity and Interpersonal Relationships in the Transition to Civilian Life”

Rooney, who may pursue a doctorate in clinical psychology, explored the influence of military service on identity and relationships, a topic inspired by her own family’s experience. Her father completed an 18-month tour with the U.S. Army in Iraq. “Growing up, I felt there was something my dad was going through, but I never asked,” she said. During her junior year, she took Regina Logan’s life story class and realized she could use the format to talk to combat veterans. In addition to finding study participants through veterans hospitals, she reached out to informal veteran support groups. Her father helped with some of the questions. “When I showed him my interview protocol he said, ‘don’t ask like that, they won’t understand the phrasing. Say it like this.’” At Northwestern, Rooney was Center for Civic Engagement Fellow and a peer mentor with The Cities Project with professor Emma Adam. She was also a research assistant in professor Yang Qu’s Culture Brain and Human Development Lab.

Anna WittcoffAnna Wittcoff, Evanston
Studied: Learning and Organizational Change, Certificate in Civic Engagement
Advisors: Mindy Douthit, faculty director of SESP practicum and assistant professor of instruction; Jennifer Tackett, professor of psychology, Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences
Thesis: “Innovating Alone, Together: The Impact of Innovation Incubators on Female Founders”

Wittcoff, who founded a social impact startup, wanted to know whether innovation incubators like The Garage at Northwestern can level the playing field for female entrepreneurs. She interviewed eight current undergraduate founders and five full-time, Chicago-based alumni founders of Techstars Accelerator programming. Her results suggested that undergraduates were more likely to see themselves as founders when they participated in programming that encouraged female identities. Wittcoff was involved in several initiatives at The Garage, including Propel, which provides networking and mentorship to women founders, and the Tinker Program, which offers students access to resource for their projects. “One of the most impactful and rewarding aspects of my Northwestern experience was just listening to other stories, especially those of family founders,” she said. After graduation, she’ll be working as a financial analyst in a rotating program at J. P.  Morgan and hopes to one day join the venture investing divisions. If she had one thing to do over at Northwestern? She’d minor in entrepreneurship.

Photos by David Johnson