Written by Sara Poarch
In the summer of 2015, I was shoveling sand into buckets under the Jordanian sun, humming 80’s rock ballads, thinking about Ramadan. I was supposed to be thinking about fourth-century Romans, but I found my interest wandering to the fasting and feasts taking place in the Arab world. In that moment, I decided I wanted my career to focus on modern Arabs instead of long-dead Romans. This was a pivotal point in my academic career, as it put me on the path to my research topic and led to further research opportunities in my final year at UT.
In the Ayn’ Gharandal Archaeological Project, which excavates a fourth-century Roman fort in the south of Jordan, I found out so much about myself, where my interests lie and how far I could push myself, all while submerged in a vibrant culture. I also found Dr. Erin Darby, my soon-to-be mentor and honors thesis advisor.
I confided in Dr. Darby that my time in the desert had changed my career interests and that I was uncertain how to move forward. She assured me it would work itself out if I put in the work. Of course, she was right. I discovered my passion through my honors thesis research.
Upon returning to campus for my junior year, I was still clueless as to a subject to research for my honors thesis. Even with the passion and enthusiasm, I had for my coursework; it was difficult to fathom a topic I could write fifty pages on over the course of a year. So, once again I sought out Dr. Darby. We went through numerous ideas trying to find a topic I could get excited about, each one eventually finding the discard pile. Though choosing a thesis topic was a stressful task, it forced me to analyze my interests and examine what kind of research I wanted to accomplish. Picking a topic may have seemed daunting, but ultimately it was an important part of the experience of carrying out original research—an experience that has helped me grow immensely.
In the end, Dr. Darby suggested conducting research on International Service Learning. Specifically, my research would aim to help the Dig Jordan program add a service-learning component to its field school. Looking back, I could not have picked a better topic because Dig Jordan was the program that altered my academic journey.
Looking back, I could not have picked a better topic because Dig Jordan was the program that altered my academic journey. I quickly fell in love with the topic; all my interests were finally collaborating.
International service learning, which incorporates fields such as anthropology, religious studies, international relations, politics, etc., offers students the opportunity to engage in experiential learning while being submerged in a different culture. By placing the student with an organization in which they conduct service for the local community, service-learning enables students to interact more fully with a given culture than the typical study abroad experience.
Currently, I am assessing the cultural engagement techniques used and sustainability issues related to current service-learning.
When performing service in an international setting, there are many aspects to consider. What kind of relationship does the culture have with America? Does the community want our help? If they do, what kind of service would be the most beneficial to them? How can the student get the most out of the experience? These are a few of the questions I am exploring through my research.
To answer them, I have been conducting interviews with faculty and students that have participated in service-learning. My aim is to evaluate what criteria need to be met to create the best possible experience.
The most remarkable part of my research is that I will be implementing it in Jordan in 2017. I am working with Dig Jordan to create a curriculum based on my findings, which I will then help teach to students in Jordan.
To date, I have received three grants and a paid research assistantship to facilitate my research. I have gone on a research trip to Missouri and will go to North Carolina in the spring to present my findings at a national conference. I have also used my thesis research as the basis for my Fulbright application. My research has given me opportunity beyond words, and I am so grateful to the CHP for pushing its students toward research. Pursuing research has helped me evolve as a scholar and a person. I hope my fellow honors students will think critically when considering their futures and use research as a launching board to achieve their goals. I certainly did.