Honors Project Leads W&J Senior to National Conference Stage

Created: January 17, 2017  |  Last Updated: July 14, 2020  |  Category:   |  Tagged:

WASHINGTON, PA (Jan. 17, 2017) – What began as an honors project for Washington & Jefferson College (W&J) senior Emily Sterk eventually led to her taking center stage at a national conference.

Emily attended Florida International University’s “Reading Cuba: An Interdisciplinary Conference on Cuban and Cuban-American Literature” from Nov. 9-10, 2016, and had the distinct honor of being the only undergraduate to present at the graduate-level conference.

Her presentation was based on her honor’s project, which examines the gendered dimensions of identity in Cuban-American memoir, poetry, and prose by exploring the perspectives of Cubans who left the country as children after the 1959 Revolution.

The project was inspired by her study abroad experience in Havana, Cuba, as a recipient of the Vira I. Heinz Program for Women in Global Leadership, which evoked the English and Spanish double major’s budding interest in Cuban studies.

As her fascination with the complexities in Cuban-American literature grew, Emily knew this was a topic she wanted to delve into further in an honors project. Impressed by her work, Dr. H.J. Manzari, associate professor of Spanish and Emily’s honors project faculty director, encouraged her to submit her work to the conference.

“At first I was hesitant to submit a proposal because I feared it would not be accepted, considering the fact that I am an undergraduate student,” Emily said. “With the help of Dr. Manzari, and Dr. Katherine Ternes and Dr. Carolyn Kyler, members of my honors review committee, I developed my research and rigorously prepared for the conference.”

Emily’s conference presentation contrasted the works of Cuban writers Gustavo Pérez Firmat and Achy Obejas. She argued that the works of Pérez Firmat, though popularly canonized in Cuban-American literature, portray a narrow hyper-heterosexual, masculine, and elitist viewpoint. To counter this perception of Cuban identity, Emily focused on Achy Obejas’s inspiring novel Memory Mambo for defying many Cuban and Cuban-American traditions and stereotypes to show the true diversity of the culture.

What seemed daunting at first proved to be one of the most humbling and enriching experiences of her educational career.

“I was able to learn a great deal from a number of Cuban and Cuban-American scholars and writers, some of whom I even discuss in my honors project. Presenting at this conference has reaffirmed my desire to attend graduate school and pursue a Ph.D. in the field of Hispanic literature….It is an experience that I will look back upon for years to come,” Emily said.


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