My School, My Thesis

Hallowed halls provide thesis inspiration

Betty Ho

Some Harvard thesis-writers travel to Tibet to go on archeological digs. They go to Tahiti to study economics. They go to Cuba to read literature. But some members of the class of 2005 never made it further than Widener. These seniors chose to write their theses at Harvard, about Harvard.

Alicia J. Menendez

Alicia J. Menendez ’05, the former president of the women’s final club The Bee, studied the role of women in Harvard’s social scene. “The women’s groups on campus spend a lot of time talking about the lack of female ownership of space on campus. Everyone talks in personal terms, but there are much larger issues going on,” Menendez said.

She discovered that the lack of gathering spaces for female final clubs makes them less visible. “Women can’t [group] in the same way men do. Most guys only know a handful of members in female final clubs,” Menendez said. The fact that on average men believe women do not form friendship collectives but rather intimate dyads exacerbates the problem, according to Menendez. She feels that she was in a unique position to study Harvard’s sociology because of her insider knowledge; for perspective, Menendez noted, the New York Times’ attempt at the same type of investigation labeled Daedalus a final club.

Ashley M. Peterson

Ashley M. Peterson ’05, a Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies concentrator, explored the soon-to-be brains behind major corporations by interviewing Harvard Business School (HBS) graduates. “I was really interested in the issues of mothers and how women are able to work or not when they become mothers,” Peterson said.

Multimedia

Peterson discovered that only 38 percent of HBS’s female alumni from the 1981, 1986, and 1991 graduating classes continued to work full-time after settling down to start a family.

“It made me more aware of the challenges I will face if I have a family,” she said. Her thesis examined the compromises women make for their families in order to be considered “good mothers.”

Soon Peterson will enter the fabled real world beyond Harvard’s wrought iron gates. “Most women won’t work even though we went to a place like Harvard. I saw it with my own eyes, and it’s pretty overwhelming.”

Rebecca E. Wexler

Rebecca E. Wexler ’05 is a joint-concentrator in Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality (WGS) and History and Science. Her unique experience in both science and WGS courses led to her Harvard-focused thesis.

Last year, Wexler noticed a serious difference in the treatment of gender in her women’s studies and anthropology classes. “They’re still teaching deterministic theories in biology and genetics that are critiqued in the women’s studies department,” Wexler said. Her thesis concluded that Harvard’s science departments treat certain differences in the performance of the sexes as innate (sound familiar?), while WGS classes focus on “feminist social biology,” Wexler said.

She said her thesis garnered additional attention after Harvard University President Lawrence H. Summers made comments on innate differences between the genders. Wexler said, “Suddenly people knew what I was writing about, whereas before they gave me really weird looks.”

Tiona Zuzul

Tiona Zuzul ’05 analyzed Harvard students in relationships, identifying the students as optimists or pessimists. The optimistic students, she discovered, get more satisfaction out of relationships than the pessimists do. “I know that sounds intuitive, but optimists are also better able to cope after their relationships end. I didn’t expect this because if you only expect the best, are you able to deal with the worst results?” Zuzul said.

She observed Harvard relationships as they developed and in the post-breakup stage. She found that relationships between Harvard students differ from the national average in one key area. “Whereas satisfaction increases over time in most relationships, it decreases over time at Harvard,” Zuzul said, though she admitted that the times she tested people could have contributed to this depressing statistic. She tested her pool at the beginning and end of first semester—in work-free September and and during reading period, at the winter solstice.

Brian J. Wannop

Brian J. Wannop ’05 investigated the Harvard Corporation, Harvard’s ultra-secret and semi-omnipotent governing board.

Wannop initially studied the impact of the 1970s and 80s corporate responsibility movement on Harvard, but eventually he gained insight into the business end of the University, a side most students are barely aware of, much less scrutinize. “It allowed me to learn about how Harvard works. There’s not a bureaucracy at this school,” Wannop said.

In his thesis Wannop declared “Harvard doesn’t like to be forced into changes quickly.” So he was greatly surprised when Harvard readily divested from PetroChina. However his thesis does provide an answer for the University’s unexpected behavior. “I think that part of [the move to divest] was due to the President Summers controversy; [the corporation] did not want to draw more attention to the school,” Wannop said.