School of Humanities Complex



Spotlight Detail


From sacred spaces in Jerusalem to violence on TV

Ten UCI Humanities Honors students tackle meaningful issues in their final thesis projects

By Annabel Adams

Last summer, University of California, Irvine undergraduate history major Lauren Kerner worked for an Israeli-Palestinian peace organization in Tel Aviv. Her job consisted of compiling blog entries from the Middle East and North Africa and organizing workshops for Israelis and Palestinians in East Jerusalem. The experience would inspire her to engage in what she calls “compassionate scholarship” with the goal of giving a platform to marginalized voices in political conflicts.  

Kerner is one of ten graduating seniors from UCI’s School of Humanities to conduct graduate-level research as part of the Humanities Honors Program. At a colloquium held last week, the seniors presented their research to a packed room of faculty mentors, peers, staff and parents. It was there that Kerner discussed her thesis project titled, “Divinity and Division: Jerusalem’s Sacred Spaces” and showcased images from her time in East Jerusalem.

Kerner highlighted two people she met: Manar, a young mother from Ramallah, and Ahmed, a young architecture student from Ramallah. “They were committed to sharing their hopes for the region, their personal stories, and their dedication to peace,” said Kerner. “There is power in giving a voice to marginalized communities.”

Kerner’s post-graduation career will begin the day after commencement. As UC Santa Barbara Hillel’s new Israel Engagement Coordinator, her first call of duty is to staff a trip of 40 UCSB students to the Middle East.

The Humanities Honors Program, launched over 40 years ago, is a two-year, upper-division program designed to challenge exceptional undergraduates in the School of Humanities during their junior and senior years. In their first year, students complete a three-quarter series of “proseminars” that explore a core problem or idea (past concepts have included: the state and civil society; the ends of suffering; conceptions of human life; and civilization and its discontents) from multiple points of view. Led by a new professor from a different discipline each quarter, the proseminars offer a similar tight-knit, seminar-style method of teaching to that of graduate school.

In their senior years, the honors students pursue an independent research project under the joint supervision of the director of the Honors Program and a faculty mentor of their choosing. The program’s collaborative setting allows students to workshop their research with one another, gain insight into the various disciplines of the humanities through the research of their peers, and hone their skills as thinkers, writers, and citizens of the world. The independent research projects culminate in the completion of a thesis presented at a colloquium in the spring and inclusion in the program’s digital archive.

As director of the program, Jayne Lewis, professor of English, has witnessed the senior participants’ academic and professional growth and the trajectory of their research from nascent idea to full-fledged thesis presented academic-conference style.

“The benefits of the program go far beyond the expansion of personal horizons and the development of an integrated understanding of the human project of world-making. Students participate directly in the larger life of the university through research, they develop a powerful sense of community and strong personal relationships with faculty mentors, they learn to speak for themselves out of a considered point of view while listening deeply and attentively to others. They also learn to see a long project through, and gain confidence in what they have to offer as “makers and remakers of a changing world,” said Lewis.

“It is rare these days to hear the word ‘humanities’ without also hearing the word ‘crisis.’ But in the Humanities Honors Program the humanities are not in crisis. This is because ‘humanities’ is interpreted to mean not a single thing--and it's things that have crises--but rather a shared, dynamic, ongoing practice based on a plurality of perspectives that constantly enhance and transform one another.”

Of her experience in the program, Kerner said, "The Humanities Honors Program has more than informed my identity as a scholar, it has informed my identity as a person committed to a life of learning, compassionate listening, and meaningful relationships with my cohort."

As this year’s seniors graduate, 16 juniors will take their place in honing their research, writing and presentation skills.

Below we highlight the ten graduating seniors from the Humanities Honors Program:

Molly Curtis ’17 (B.A. art history) – Molly’s senior honor thesis centered on 20th-century artist Elaine Sturtevant and applied theories of repetition to the sexual politics of her art. Molly will pursue an M.A. in art history next fall through UCI’s Art History 4+1 program.
Faculty mentor: James Nisbet, associate professor of art history

Nichole Grimes ’17 (B.A. history) – Nichole’s senior honor thesis centered on environmental racism in the Hetch Hetchy (Yosemite Valley) water rights debates of the early 20th century. After graduating, she will pursue a master’s in library and information science from the University of Arizona. She is the recipient of a Chancellor’s Undergraduate Research Award through UROP.
Faculty mentor: Adriana Johnson, associate professor of comparative literature

Rachael Heinsen ’17 (B.A. English) – Rachael’s senior honors thesis centered on labor and the fragmented body in Moby Dick. After graduating, Rachael plans to apply to Ph.D. programs in English.
Faculty mentor: Richard Godden, professor of English

Lauren Kerner ’17 (B.A. history) – Lauren’s senior honor thesis centered on architectural spaces in relation to creedal diversity in Jerusalem. After graduating, Lauren will serve as UC Santa Barbara’s Israel Engagement Coordinator.
Faculty mentor: Matthias Lehmann, Teller Family Chair in Jewish History

Zeina Mousa ’17 (B.A. comparative literature) – Zeina’s senior honors thesis centered on the figure of the Muslim and its equation with terrorism in contemporary American political rhetoric and alt-right media. She was accepted to Columbia’s M.A. program in Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African American Studies and will begin this fall.
Faculty mentor: Nasrin Rahimieh, Howard Baskerville Professor of Humanities and professor and chair of comparative literature

Xavier Oliver ’17 (B.A. English) – Xavier’s senior honors thesis tests Foucaldain theories of spectacle against contemporary representations of police brutality. After graduation, he plans to apply to graduate programs in English or critical theory.
Faculty mentor: R. Radhakrishnan, Chancellor’s professor of English and comparative literature

Meghan O’Sullivan ’17 (B.A. English) – Meghan’s senior honors thesis centered on permutations of the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale and changing concepts of female mobility. After graduating, Meghan will attend Chapman Law where she will focus on either criminal or international law.
Faculty mentor: Jayne Lewis, professor of English

Hubert Ta ’17 (B.A. film and media studies) – Hubert’s senior honors thesis centered on the history of TV violence, with three case studies designed to track and explain its intensification. After graduating, Hubert plans to pursue either graduate or professional school.
Faculty mentor: Allison Perlman, assistant professor of history

Meghan Taylor ’17 (B.A. comparative literature) – Meghan’s senior honors thesis centered on German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer, postcolonial theory and problems of temporality and cross-cultural impasse in Chinua Achebe's novel Things Fall Apart. She received a $500 award from the School of Humanities for this research. After graduating, Meghan plans to apply to Ph.D. programs in comparative literature.
Faculty mentor: John Smith, professor of German

Therasa Topete ’17 (B.A. religious studies) – Therasa’s senior honor thesis centered on the Gospel of Mary Magdalene and its exclusion from the Christian canon. She was accepted into the Master of Arts program in Religion at Claremont University with a fellowship.
Faculty mentor: Joseph Hugh McKenna, lecturer in history

To learn more about UCI Humanities’ Honors Program, visit