You Never Know What Might Happen When Working on your Senior Thesis

The short piece below is from our undergraduate student McKenzie Oliver, who began work this semester on a senior thesis entitled “The Smuggling of Millions: The American Mission Press and a New Type of American Philanthrophy,” under the direction of Carole Woodall. With some travel support from the Dean’s Office and the History Department, and with McKenzie’s hard work in the PResbyterian Historical Society Archives in Philadelphia, this thesis has taken flight! Below, McKenzie reflects on her experiences as a researcher.

You never know what might happen when working on your Senior Thesis…
McKenzie Oliver

  At the beginning of the Spring 2016 semester, I began the Senior Thesis Seminar with absolutely no idea what I wanted to write my paper on, let alone a topic on the Middle East. I had never taken a course on the region until the seminar, and here I was expected to become a knowledgeable expert in sixteen weeks.

After an initial conversation with Dr. Carole Woodall, I decided that I wanted to delve into the topic of humanitarian or relief work during World War One (1914-1918). I started reading Keith Watenpaugh’s From Bread into Stones and other secondary works to familiarize myself with the region and its history. I still needed to hone in on a specific topic. And, I did. After a couple of weeks of reading, I came across scant information on the American Presbyterian Mission Press, referred to as “The Press”. The Press grabbed my attention because it was a major relief effort the United States undertook during WWI. The organization transmitted funds of over $2,000,000 to 30,000 Syrians living in the city of Beirut, Lebanon, and the surrounding areas. As I assessed the secondary literature on The Press, I discovered that very few people had written about it, or for that matter researched it. I contacted Dr. Christine Lindner, who had written a paper on Charles Dana, The Press’s manager at the time. I wrote to her asking if she had any suggestions or advice on how to research The Press’s philanthropic initiatives in Beirut. She confirmed that very few people had looked into this specific topic and suggested that I do my own research out in Philadelphia at the Presbyterian Historical Society (PHS). At first I didn’t think this would be possible. However, Dr. Carole Woodall supported and encouraged me to take on such a wonderful opportunity, and helped me to find funds to cover travel expenses. One thing led to another and I found myself on my way to Philadelphia over spring break.

I was really nervous at first because I had never taken on a task this big, or been alone in a big city for a week. Once I got settled at my Airbnb on Society Hill I started to feel a little better about the week ahead of me. My room was right down the street from the Presbyterian Historical Society, and close to cafes and restaurants. On Monday morning, Prof. Lindner, who is currently teaching at the University of Philadelphia, met me at PHS. She helped me get acquainted with PHS’s archives by showing me how to request documents, and how to organize information.  After a couple of hours I got the hang of how everything was done and jumped into four straight days of going through records and folders of materials on the Beirut Mission Press during World War I.

I read dozens of reports and letters from the Mission Press in Beirut to their home base in New York City. These documents detailed the relief activities The Press undertook between 1914 and 1918. Part of the relief work included ledgers of funds being transmitted from New York City to Beirut. Each evening I talked with Dr. Woodall about my research and asked questions about what leads to follow. By the end of Wednesday, I had come across some documents on the Persian Mission in Urmia. It was in operation at the same time as the Beirut Mission, and was doing very similar work when it came to the transmission of funds from the United States. After four days, I had accumulated more than enough to complete the Senior Thesis requirements.

When I started the seminar, I never thought that I would be doing original research and making a contribution to the field. After completing the Senior Thesis, I will continue to work on the project with the intention of submitting an article in 2017. This was definitely an experience of a lifetime and something I will never forget. You never know what might happen when working on your Senior Thesis.

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