thesis

Sweet New Year

The fall is upon us; this is the realization that I had as the temperature took a sudden dive and I pulled a sweater and umbrella out from my closet. This Monday and Tuesday was Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. I celebrated with apples and honey for a “sweet new year”, and dinners filled with my grandma’s recipes (kasha varnishkas, goulash, honey cake). I’ve been thinking about and planning for the year ahead, my final year of undergraduate school, and where it might take me. October is a month filled with job interviews and job fairs. My friends are in Seattle for an interview one day, back in school the next, finishing final touches on medical school and graduate program applications. The next year seems like a distance away, and yet here we are, trying to make decisions that will prepare us for the next move, and then, hopefully, for the next. Wrapping my head around where we may all end up in a year is like writing a collection of tension-filled fiction in itself.

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Shanah Tova! Happy New Year!

I have also been thinking about my thesis, and where it may take me. I am grateful for the momentum that I was given over the summer, but now I am forced to be even more mindful of getting myself to the writing table. This past month, I gave myself the commitment to find time to sit and write every single day, weekends and weekdays alike. Amid reading assignments and engineering group projects, job applications and exams, I have been finding the space to give my writing the priority it deserves – to not just let the days slip away. (Of course, weekly meetings with my advisor, Kevin Gonzalez, have provided the necessary encouragement). Some days, this has meant finding the silence early in the morning, and others – later at night.

I have been working on a story that now might be turning into a lengthier novella. There is also the chance that, when I’m through, I will have to untangle it into two distinct stories. I’m not sure where it will end up now, or where the stories of the rest of the year will take me. In any case, I will be writing! Have a happy and healthy new year, everyone!

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Working with Unanticipated Elements That Become a Part of My Own Narrative

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Fall 2014 FORGE semester outing with our refugee family

Each week, I open up the thesis proposal I wrote in March to re-evaluate my research goals and scroll down to the timetable that I’d created with my adviser.

Looking at it, I’m realizing that I need to adjust the deadlines I’d set for myself. There were several unanticipated bumps along the road that had kept me from completing the bulk of my fieldwork for my research by the end of September.

I felt disappointed and frustrated. Now that I had classes Monday through Friday, I wondered whether or not I could make up for a few months of fieldwork. For days, I contemplated over how I would reallocate my timetable and it proved to be extremely difficult. Without any data, I struggled to imagine the extent of my abilities to conduct interviews while juggling classes. It’s easy to schedule in time where I work on my literature review and put together my poster for a presentation for a Dietrich College Family Weekend event, but the interviews will require a few hours that include commute time, the actual duration of the interview and the time it will take for me to transcribe the recorded interview and reflect on the interviews as part of the analysis.

The longer I wait for the IRB to approve of my study, the more anxious I am. Whenever anyone asks me how my research is going, I feel a knot in my stomach because all I’ve accomplished in the last week is adding a few more articles to my annotated bibliography.

I still see my FORGE family on the weekends and it’s amazing how a few hours with them helps me relax. I relax because the conversations I have with them are not about my research. I relax because I can sit on their couch with them and watch Hindi movies without subtitles. I relax because they’re looking forward to celebrating the upcoming Nepali holiday. I relax because being present with them reminds me why I was motivated in the first place to pursue my thesis.

I’m looking forward to my weekends as soon as my IRB proposal is approved, because I will be having conversations with a community that reminds me of the importance of the present.

It’s ironic to me that as I constantly think about narrative inquiry, one of the methods I am using for my research, I realize that it’s much easier to talk the talk than walk the walk. Narrative inquiry is a methodology that encourages researchers to value the lived experiences of their subjects.

Lekkie Hopkins, who advocates using narrative inquiry in refugee research, wrote, “Researchers must understand that if storying is to grapple with the richness and complexity of lived experience, it will probably be chaotic and messy, as well as clear and straightforward. Researchers wanting to investigate the sociology of refugee experiences might be well advised to ensure that the stories they gather from research participants are not too neat, too straightforward, too much reduced to bare essentials in their telling, lest the chance to allow the stories to become personally and politically resonant be lost.”

I remember reading Lekkie Hopkins in March of this year and interestingly, I’m looking back at her abstract and making a connection to my own narrative as well as the narratives of the refugees I hope to hear soon. My own narrative, or my own lived experience, will be messy and chaotic at times and that’s how it should be.

I know that this sounds cliché, but it really is important to live in the present. Too much time is spent organizing, and reorganizing, my Google calendar. I’ve adjusted my timetable, come to terms with it and moved on.

Alternate Tunings

With school coming back into session, I’m reminded that it’s time to get back into the grind of my thesis.

The tail-end of the summer and these first few weeks of school have brought my mind back to focusing on my work, and also questioning some of the ideas I’ve had about the final form my project will take.

A quick TL;DR of my life: my band released an album, I played a lobster festival in Chicago, and I’ve been accepted as an Andrew Carnegie Society Scholar, which I hope will fund a trip to SXSW to meet industry executives and leaders in March.

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All of these experiences have led me to question what the final form of my thesis project will take.

Initially, I wanted my project to be presented as a film, more specifically a documentary. This film would be 30-45 minutes, and more or less be a traditional linear narrative that puts forth my argument about the Pittsburgh music scene.

However, I find myself now questioning myself. After finishing my research this past summer and limiting my scope, I now worry about almost being too argumentative and having tunnel vision with my film.

My music experiences and interactions with individuals have taught me that, if anything, the developments in the music scene are inextricably tied to huge other cultural factors locally, nationally and regionally. It’s no surprise that with huge amounts of money coming in from the tech boom and with younger, more affluent people moving into the city there has been a shift in the live music scene.

Also, I’m quickly realizing that the notion of making a large film has a learning curve, and even with a team to help, could lead to us getting mired in production aspects rather than focusing on content.

As a result, I’ve been debating using an online, interactive method of conveying my narrative as opposed to a traditional film.

Businessman pressing virtual icons

This narrative would be less “linear” and act more as a timeline that displays information with firsthand videos and documents accessed by the reader. As a result, the reader can move around more and create their own personalized experience in learning about changes in the music scene. Also, as the music scene continues to develop and change, more people could post and add to this narrative.

The one weakness of this change would be that my ability to convey an argument would be weakened. My ability to control how the narrative functions and is followed is hindered by the increased interactivity and responsibility of the user/reader.

Ultimately, I think that this hurdle of deciding the final form of my project is the next challenge for me to tackle (and fast!)

Adjusting to Change (pt. 2)

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When I started my research over the summer, I wrote about how difficult it was to adjust to a new schedule of doing research full time. Now, a week and a half into the school year, I find myself adjusting (again) to a new schedule – one that involves classes, campus activities and working on my senior thesis. Initially, the prospect of writing a thesis in addition to my schoolwork seemed daunting and overwhelming.

I decided to give myself at least two weeks off from researching and found this to be very beneficial. I was able to figure out what days I had more free time, so I could more easily schedule time to work on my thesis. I am immensely grateful that I participated in the Dietrich Honors Fellowship Program over the past summer – I feel a lot more comfortable going into my senior year knowing that I have a good foundation for moving forward with my research this semester.

Earlier this week, I met with my adviser to see what I was missing. Moving forward, I will work primarily on my survey about La Loi Toubon and La Charte de La Langue Française. This survey will be sent out to participants based in France and Quebec, and will ask general questions about language use, the importance of speaking French in the public sphere and knowledge about La Loi Toubon and La Charte de La Langue Française. I am primarily interested in better gauging contemporary opinion about language use and identity, and am looking forward to evaluating and analyzing my results later this semester.

Curtain Call

As the summer draws to a close, I’ve been thinking more about my successes, failures and overall experience with the Dietrich Honors Fellowship Program.

Overall, I think my biggest success this past summer was being able to narrow my topic down to a narrative that I was truly interested in. At the beginning of the summer, I was somewhat lost in what I wanted my final film to be about. I was pulling at various threads without getting any real leads. Now, I’m happy to say I have finalized my narrative: I will focus on how Pittsburgh serves as a microcosm to study the effects of technological innovations on the overall democratization of the music industry.

Some of my other successes were more personal goals of mine. For example, I learned that I was able to complete an independent study and create my own research syllabus for the summer. Another goal of mine was meeting and learning about key individuals in the field, such as Dr. Kathryn Metz of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, reading books by David Byrne and getting in contact with executives at record labels.

With that being said, I think I also hit a few bumps and fell short along the way. One aspect of my thesis that I definitely have to work on is aggregating and going through more sources, and faster. One of my weaknesses is getting bogged down in reading and over-analyzing each source instead of finding the information that’s pertinent to my research. However, I think this will become easier because I have a more set narrative in place to follow.

Another failure of mine would be the amount of writing and synthesis I have done. Moving forward, I definitely need to write more about my project and its progress. Beyond using this a tool to keep relevant parties informed of my work, it also helps me realize where the gaps in my research are, and where I need to focus on.

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Moving forward, the next step for me will be working on the film. This includes creating a  storyboard, finding a videographer and editor and beginning production on the film.

Overall, I’m extremely grateful for the opportunity given to me by Dietrich College through this fellowship. I would like to thank the fellows, the Dean’s Office staff, my advisers and the countless others who have supported me throughout the summer with my work. Thanks again!

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August Reflections

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The Fourth of July is usually the day that sets me into a panic that the summer is over. In reality, though, at this point the summer is still at its early stages; New York’s beach water has yet to warm by the stored sun, my August birthdate hasn’t reached my radar and my mother has yet to plan the last hurrah family vacation. On the Fourth of July, I remind myself to focus on the present days, that August is sprawled out somewhere far ahead.

But here we are: past the midway point of August, perhaps my favorite month (I mentioned the birthday part, right?), but also a month that feels like one long Sunday. As I soak up some of the final moments, I also reflect on all that I learned while working on my honors fellowship and how I can use the momentum to carry on in the midst of my challenging fall semester course load. Here are a few things that I came up with:

  1. Schedule in daily writing time. Even when I feel bogged down by homework assignments and exams, I need to schedule in my writing time as if it were a class I wouldn’t dare miss.
  1. Tune everything out. Find a quiet space where people won’t be coming in and out, power off my cell phone and tuck it away somewhere out of sight. 
  1. Give a story a chance. I have so many ideas of what I want to write about that sometimes, in the very early stages, I have trouble sticking to a story. Write down those ideas, save them for later. But an idea is not yet a story, and I need to remember to stick it out before swapping out. Usually, once I get three to four pages in, I won’t want to switch anymore.
  1. Ask “What if?” If my characters feel stuck, asking some questions can help me figure out their next moves.
  1. Pick up a book. And if all else fails, reading a little bit of a really well-written story or novel (For example, I recently finished “Half an Inch of Water” by Percival Everett – recommended by my adviser, Kevin González) always inspires me and makes me want to sit down and write again.

Great Lakes of Corn and Wheat

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In the center of Michigan, the lakes are not clear water, but are golden colored wheat and tall corn. The combines are friendly giants that wander outside of the wooden posts, traveling on the main roads even as far as to the McDonalds on the corner of 3 Mile Road, taking up both lanes and forcing the smaller cars to trail behind at the slowed pace. The rural roadways are long and straight and unpopulated, aside from the birds, just enough so as to give drivers the confidence to do unlawful things without thinking twice.

I learned all of this as I spent a few weeks in field research, collecting details of scenery and cultures and conversations. I also learned of the tremendous economic and social impact that a city can feel in the midst of a large acquisition and layoff by their major source of employment. In certain cities in our country, companies seem to grow along with the community, playing a central role in names of high schools and community gardens. These companies sit at the family dinner table; they create story lines from grandfather to grandchild. While I was there, though, this name was suddenly on the lips of everyone around me as a word of caution and worry – who would stay, who would have to move away, as 700 men and women were let go? From my yoga instructor, who worked as a freelance contractor for the company, to a volunteer at the community boathouse who worked as an economic planner for the city government, no one seemed to left out of the conversation. These conversations, these long, quiet roads, have been on my mind as I begin to write my next story.

On Change

Nguyen - On Change 1As always, summer breezed straight past me, and I can’t even believe it’s August. I’ve already switched into full denial mode where I refuse to think about how school is coming up so soon. With all the work I spent on my project over the summer, and time divided between friends and jobs, everything seemed to move by so quickly. But after each day ends, another begins. Another challenge to face along with failures and successes. As the sun sets on the summer behind me, it’s a bit sad and exciting. I have found confidence in my own writing and my own progress, no matter how fast or slow it comes. It will be exciting to see how my pieces will continue to grow and change during the fall.

Now, it’s time to switch gears and jump into Resident Assistant duties. I won’t have much time for a break with work starting for me on August 12, so I’m trying to enjoy the idle moments. With first-year students moving in soon and the whirlwind that is orientation week, time spent writing by myself will be a luxury. I’ll miss these quiet moments, living in the world of my characters with only their voices to fill my skull, but I’m ready to embrace change, and both the highs and lows that come with it.

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Exploring My Freedom

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As I sat, just a few days ago, in a conference room in Baker Hall surrounded by my fellow Fellows and their advisers, waiting quite impatiently for my turn to present the work I have done over the summer, I got to thinking about what I’ve done in the past three months. Of course, I know what I have accomplished in terms of my research project, as that was the core of the presentation. For those of you who missed it, here are some of the highlights:

  • I generated two unique research questions and hypotheses.
  • I crafted a research experiment to address these questions and hypotheses.
  • I found and created measures and manipulations with which to perform this research experiment.
  • I formulated these measures and manipulations into a coherent, hopefully acceptable IRB application (for which I am still waiting on approval).
  • I programmed all of the information from the IRB application into the online platform through which my study will eventually be made available to participants.

Though there is still work to be done before the school year, specifically in terms of piloting my study to ensure that there are no further changes to be made, and (God willing!) receiving IRB approval, I am able to look back on this summer and say that I have accomplished most of my goals. This is an incredible feeling – almost as good of a feeling as sitting down after completing my presentation. However, as I sat in that room sweaty and anxious, I was not thinking about my research goals and accomplishments. I was, instead, thinking about the summer I was able to have outside of my research.

This summer, thanks to the flexibility of the fellowship program, I was able to continue on with my job at the Carnegie Mellon University Store, enabling me to make some extra money. I then swiftly blew through this money during my travels, which included my family’s annual summer vacation to Wisconsin, as well as multiple trips to Washington, D.C. to visit my boyfriend and explore a new and historic city. Some of my most fond and educational memories of the summer come from the traveling I was able to do, and I cannot express my gratitude to the fellowship program for making this possible. Additionally, as I have written about before, I found a new love this summer: hot yoga. Having the flexibility to attend daily classes has allowed me to improve myself, both physically and mentally, in ways that I hope will carry into the rest of my life off of the mat.

Though I have already had a very fulfilling summer, it is now time for me to take some time off and regroup before the school year starts. In this next month, I will continue my travels – this time going out west to Utah and then on to California. I will still be in contact with my faculty adviser through email, sorting out any issues that may come about during study piloting that will occur while I’m gone. However, I can confidently say that I have made it through this summer of research, and that I have great momentum and hopes for when I get back to it in the fall.

The Richest Mine of Inspiration

The view outside my internship office: Home smoggy home.

The view outside my internship office: Home smoggy home.

It’s old news that inspiration can come from anywhere. J.K. Rowling says the spark for “Harry Potter” came from a dream – boring. Mary Shelley conjured “Frankenstein” from a “ghost story” challenge among friends – less boring. Inspiration can jump from a bizarre news story, a snippet of eavesdropped conversation, or a personal tragedy. But I’ve found the most reliable source of inspiration is just… talking.

Preferably to others, rather than myself (I’m not really going for a “Jekyll and Hyde” thing). And a lot of different others, from backgrounds I’m unlikely to encounter in my workshop classes and with viewpoints outside of my own personalized echo chamber. I’ve been fortunate this summer in my “exposure” to a wide variety of interesting people (plenty of them queer, I’ll admit – after all, I do have to stay on-topic). Part of this I’ve cultivated on purpose. I started volunteering at a radical collectivist bookshop in Bloomfield where I had hours-long discussions with some of the smartest freethinkers I’ve ever met. And last week, I began my internship at a New York non-profit for LGBT rights on a global scale; the dedication and perseverance of my activist colleagues has energized me daily. Other inspiring discussions caught me by surprise (turns out first-date conversation doesn’t have to be confined to “what’s your major” and “so this was fun”.)

Of course listening is a vital part of the kind of talking that inspires me. At work this week, an awesome visiting attorney specializing in LGBT asylum cases — think “if Idina Menzel was a lawyer” — never had to give the “compassion over money” speech for me to believe it. At the bookstore a couple weeks ago, I collaborated on a Tumblr meme with an anarchist trans girl who used to shoplift and is still part of a graffiti gang. Last weekend, I saw “Ghostbusters” with my best friend and had a capital-M Moment with the probable lady-couple next to us about how thousands of little queer girls are going to watch Kate McKinnon kicking butt and think “maybe this is me and maybe that’s okay.”

Everyone has a story to tell, sure, but not everyone has the resources or ability to tell it. I can only hope my project will do justice to a few of these often unheard voices. The funny thing is I was going to work something into this post about how odd it is that the word “inspiration” has such positive connotations even though I have definitely been inspired by things like breakups and mass shootings. But as inclined as I am toward cynicism in real life, I tend to lose track of that in my writing. I write to make a little more sense of the ugliness in the world, and to feel a little better about life. In fiction, at least, I’m good at happy endings.

Learn more about my project.