Monday, June 1, 2015

English Student Alaina Berry Wins Award for Best Honors Capstone Project

By Dr. Sharleen Mondal, Assistant Professor of English

On Friday, May 8, at Ashland University's Honors Cording Ceremony, English major Alaina Berry was awarded the Howard O. Rowe Scholarship for best Honors Capstone project among her peers. Her project, titled The Effects of Code-Switching: How Bless Me, Ultima Explores Chican@ Culture and Identity, is illustrative of the outstanding scholarship produced by English majors at Ashland University. Berry’s faculty mentors included Dr. Linda Joyce Brown (English), Dr. Sharleen Mondal (English), and Dr. Pravin Rodrigues (Communication Studies). 

Alaina at her defense with her faculty mentors, Dr. Mondal and Dr. Brown.
Berry’s project examines the use of code-switching—or the use of both English and Spanish—in Rudolfo Anaya’s acclaimed novel Bless Me, Ultima (1972). She argues that Anaya’s code-switching not only works to highlight the value of Chican@ culture through the novel’s use of both languages, but also critiques and disrupts the normative construction of American identity, which is monolingual and Anglo-centric. Berry shows that the novel argues for a broadening of American identity which acknowledges histories of Anglo territorial acquisition and linguistic suppression, and thus, which values Chican@ culture and Spanish language rather than marginalizing them.

When asked how she developed her Capstone project, Berry explained that 

My motivation to write about this topic primarily stemmed from my English and Spanish majors. I enjoyed doing close readings and analyzing the text directly, but I wanted to incorporate my understanding of Spanish language. This led me to the novel Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya which has both English and Spanish languages and was a novel that I had read in an academic setting on multiple occasions. My experience in Dr. Brown's class particularly inspired me to take a closer look at the work and see what it had to offer.

In her letter nominating Berry's project for the award, Dr. Mondal, praised the project for its methodological sophistication and cultural relevance. She also highlighted Berry's excellence in "connecting complex historical, political, linguistic, and theoretical information to her literary analysis," which allowed Berry to show "how relevant Anaya’s work was and continues to be given the material realities of Chican@ readers." Dr. Mondal also praised Berry's "deep sense of responsibility as a scholar” in that she diligently analyzes “the work of other writers to prove the uniqueness and impact of Anaya’s style of code-switching." Dr. Mondal also noted that during her defense, Berry not only laid out the core arguments in her thesis, but also addressed the current relevance of her work in the midst of highly contested laws in Arizona banning Mexican American studies courses, as well as the defunding and even elimination of Mexican American and Ethnic Studies programs at the university level across the United States. Berry’s work reminds us of the costs incurred when monolingual, Anglo-centric versions of American culture and identity are privileged while others are obscured—and of the richness that Chican@ culture has to offer. With regard to the relevance of her scholarship to current issues, Berry notes that “What was discussed in this project is only the tip of the iceberg; much more can be gleaned from Anaya's novel, and much more needs to be done in order to combat an Anglo-centric and monolingual American identity.”

When asked to reflect on the process of writing and research that produced her outstanding thesis, Berry remarked that

Working on the project was an incredible experience. I did a great deal of research and reading, and once I reached the point of writing, the process became easier because I understood what I was trying to express. Of course, there were points where I was frustrated or felt convinced that I couldn't continue, but the support from my mentors, family, and friends helped me through and led me to my success. I'm proud of the work I did, and I wouldn't have been if it weren't for the guidance that I had.

She further reflected on how her experience as an English major informed her award-winning scholarship, noting that

This project would have been nothing had it not been for the fantastic faculty in the English Department. Not only did they solidify my decision to pursue an English major, but they challenged me to take my work to a higher level. They were there to offer article and book recommendations, engaged in discussions about interesting literary, historic, and contemporary topics, worked at odd hours of the day and night to provide me with feedback, and gave support even when they were not physically present.

Becoming an English major was one of the best decisions of my undergraduate career. I have developed skills to write clearly and effectively, be a critical thinker and conscientious individual, and appreciate widespread perspectives that I had not considered in the past.

Berry graduated this May and will be greatly missed by her professors and peers. Her scholarly work and deep sense of the linkages between literary works and social justice reflects the best of what Ashland English faculty could hope to inspire in students.