Erin Gallagher ('15, French and International Studies)

Erin Gallagher in France

What do you do for your undergraduate research?

I carried out an Honors thesis on my research topic, which was the way in which photographs created, disseminated, published by and otherwise used by aid organizations and NGOs affect the historical and modern "imaginary" (or picture) that many people in the West have of Africa and Africans, as well as how this affects aid itself and reinforces historical core-periphery relations between the West and Africa. I called these images "aid iconography." I looked at historical visual representations and photographs associated with or used by organizations. I broke them down into three categories, or "commonplaces" that represent the most prevalent types of images of Africa and its peoples: the body, the child and the woman, the victim. I used critical theories such as Jackson's Relational Constructivism, Kristeva's Abjection theory, phantasy theory, and Anderson's Imagined Communities concept to round out my research and explore how these seemingly innocent photographs are often more harmful than beneficial.

What made you want to pursue an undergraduate research project?

In my first semester of freshman year, I actually didn't know about the UNCW Honors College. When I heard about it, I decided I knew I could do it, and wanted to be a scholar. So, I applied and began my second semester as an Honors student. I thoroughly enjoyed my Honors classes - they opened my mind to the bigger picture, different ways to look at it, and how much more there is to learn about it. I was introduced to many exciting theories that piqued my interest (and ended up playing a large part in my thesis!). I had absolutely no idea what to research when I was nearing the time to start the project - I knew I wanted to do research on something international (one of my majors), and since I wanted to study abroad in France and Africa, I decided to center my thesis on Africa. The underlying desire for me to begin the project - and what I drew on when I was exhausted or needing inspiration - was that I knew I not only wanted to graduate with Honors, but that I wanted to delve into the world around me to learn as much as I could. I discovered that when you pick a topic you think is narrow, you find out that within that is a whole universe more to learn, and that was exciting to me.

How did you start your research project?

Once I decided in my second semester of junior year that I would do my Honors thesis in my INT major, I started looking for an advisor who would challenge me, enrich my mind, and provide support. I found all that and more in Dr. Florentina Andreescu in INT Studies. I then gathered a committee by using suggestions from friends and professors, and met with them. Once I had all that figured out, I set about finding a narrower topic than "I want to research Africa." Together with my committee, my advisor and a dream I had (I know it sounds silly but I'm serious, I found my topic! I began outlining what I'd need to do, research and who I would interview in Senegal, since I was going to study abroad in Paris and Dakar the following summer. I finished the project in my first semester of senior year, the fall after my study abroad. It gave me a context and concrete experience to begin to tackle the enormous continent of Africa in my research.

Was doing your own research fun? Be Honest.

Yes and no. I think anyone who tells you it was all a blast is either suffering from Post-Thesis-Recovery-Syndrome, or forgot how hard it is. Or maybe they really did like everything about it (it's possible…) Honestly, I did enjoy my project for the most part, but I would not say it was always fun, per se. It sometimes felt like it would never be over and I questioned everything I was doing (what my friend called "black hole moments," or what Dr. Atwill calls "the dark nights of the soul"), and I almost always felt as if once I finished the thing I thought was the hardest, the next thing was even more difficult. You're literally creating something new out of scratch with ingredients you have to go out and search for in hard-to-reach places, and that is hard, because along with it comes academic and personal growing pains, speedbumps, everything. Despite all the difficult work, I still feel that for the majority of the time, it was good. I had many moments where the lightbulb went on and I thought, wow, this is why I love this, or found something related and thought, ooh, I want to do research on that too! I was excited about learning itself, about the topic, and about the future, and that also helped me keep going. The truth is you have to trudge through the difficulty in order to reap the rewards! During my project, many of my ideas (including what I wanted to do when I graduate) changed, which was difficult, but ultimately led to a greater understanding of myself as an adult, as an Honors scholar, and as a part of the globalized world.

It isn't required to do research as an undergrad, so what advantages do you think this experience has provided you?

I thought about this a lot when I was doing the project, actually! You will ask yourself why you're doing this, and you'll have to find the answer for yourself that works the best. For me, since I have decided to work for a few years and see if graduate school is necessary, the reason I found for doing it was that I wanted to know I could do it, and do it well. As I said before, during the project many of my interests and plans changed! And this is okay! Advantages in my case are not as straightforward as they would be if I were going right into a graduate program. For me, I feel that it offered me a much-needed eye-opening, a chance to grow and see what I am capable of when put to the test, and helped me gain experience in interviewing others (in another language!), expressing myself, my thoughts and complex academic thinking, analyzing problems, and generally just good practice in approaching, planning for, carrying out and learning from a huge project, not unlike what I'll be doing in my career.

What recognition and/or grants did you receive for your research?

I received the Gilman Scholarship and the Benjamin Franklin Scholarship from the French embassy to do parts of my research during my study abroad. I was featured in the UNCW Applied Learning Gallery, and other than that, I passed my defense! The recognition and the reward for me was seeing the smiling faces of my advisor, committee and friends and loved ones I had invited, and knowing that I had done it!

What are your plans after you receive your degree from UNCW?

That's a fantastic question. I am not sure, but I consciously made the decision to complete my Honors thesis a semester before graduation so that I could tackle that question head-on, without a large project blocking my view. I have evolved in my self-concept and in what I want to do in life, and I have the Honors project in part to thank for that! During the project, my lofty and nebulous freshman ideas of going straight to graduate school for INT studies or French or going into the Peace Corps or an aid organization changed, and now I am excited to put myself to work on a new project: finding my job for the next few years! Then after that, who knows. I know that my career plans include using my French and working for the betterment of my local and international communities, whether it is through starting my own business, creating, or going to work for others.

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