I have been a research assistant in the Government Department since my freshman year at William and Mary, when a professor of mine (who later became my academic adviser) took me aside after class to invite me to work on a new research project. The project was a national survey of members of Unity08, a third party movement that intended to participate in the 2008 election, fielding a bipartisan ticket with a message of change and collaboration in Washington. The unique thing about this party was that it was entirely based online. The goal was for members to discuss on the Internet what to include in their party platform and to participate online in a virtual nominating convention. The idea of surveying the members of this unique organization intrigued me, so I signed on.
Over two years, we conducted three survey waves, and this year we finally put the data together to write about what we found. Unfortunately, the movement dissolved just before the Iowa caucus, but short-lived as it was, there were still some interesting things to say about Unity08 participants and the virtual structure of the organization itself. So, we (my adviser, another former student, and myself) wrote a paper and submitted it to the State of the Parties conference hosted by the Ray Bliss Institute at the University of Akron.
We were accepted to present the paper at the conference, and before I knew it, I was on my way to my first real academic conference in Ohio! If I expected anything from this experience, it was to be surrounded by PhD’s in American Politics who were passionate about American political parties. I was right on the mark. Frankly, I was an anomaly-an undergraduate at an academic conference who had not only helped collect data for a paper but had actually co-written the paper. Now, typically you might not call this “scene” cool, but I had a BLAST!
Not only did I see a number of truly impressive research projects from faculty across the U.S., but my adviser let me and the other student (who is now a PhD candidate at UC San Diego) present the paper during our 15-minute segment of time. It was an awesome experience. I got to meet professors at institutions where I might one day be a grad student, discuss the field with professors over dinner or lunch, and I even got to visit an Ohio national park on our last day in town.
But beyond getting to be a full participant in the research, paper-writing, and presentation, this conference was a great reminder of how unique William and Mary is.
So many professors from other institutions were floored to find out that I was an undergraduate being given such responsibility and hands-on experience in research. It’s easy to forget how rare a full undergraduate research experience really is – until someone says, “Wow. William and Mary clearly has something really impressive going on.”
And we do.
If students are interested in undergrad research, there are plenty of opportunities here – not just in the hard sciences but in art, sociology, government, and theatre. These experiences offer unparalleled insight into academia and hands-on applications of the stuff most college students only read about in books. Even cooler than the research itself are the faculty who offer undergraduates these opportunities. I owe a lot to my academic adviser, who has been inspirational and supportive and has challenged me to become a more mature scholar and a more well-rounded student. It takes a very special kind of professor to step aside and give his/her students the floor at a conference full of his/her peers. We have a whole university of those kinds of professors at William and Mary. So tell me: what could possibly be more awesome than that?
Senior Tour Guide