For months, these seniors will have poured their souls into a research project that marks the capstone of their Princeton academic experience. Some refer to the arduous process as “birthing a book.” Forming a question, writing the words, consulting endlessly with their advisor — these are steps in a rite of passage that almost all Princetonians will recognize.
For many, and especially for those who don’t go into academia, the thesis will likely end up sitting in an obscure corner of a bookshelf, out of sight and out of mind. But from time to time, the thesis makes a surprising reappearance in the post-Princeton life, re-emerging in unexpected ways.
The post-thesis life, it appears, is not as easily packageable into a pithy hashtag as PTL tank tops might suggest.
I arrived in Washington, D.C., in June 2017, not long after graduation. The thesis that I had handed in two months prior was perhaps the last thing on my mind as I settled into my new home and got ready to start work as a reporting intern at The Washington Post, where I had been assigned to cover social issues on the Local desk.
But where to begin? Everything was arguably a social issue, and the obvious social issues –– affordable housing, gentrification, poverty –– seemed like daunting and complex behemoths that I would struggle to untangle and understand.
As I looked at the city, wondering how to tackle the task of reporting on it, I found myself thinking back to my thesis. I had majored in the Spanish and Portuguese department, and wrote my thesis on the city in the works of the Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges. In his short stories, essays, and poems, Borges had depicted the city as a labyrinth that must be carefully studied in order to be understood, and as something spatially and temporally infinite, endlessly expandable in shape, size, and time. He had also ruminated on the city as an ever-changing place, something that shapes and is shaped by its inhabitants.
Might Borges be able to help me with teasing out interesting stories and trends to report on in D.C.?
I dug out the thesis on my laptop and re-read the last paragraph, in which I reflected on what Borges can teach us about cities:
“If literature is meant to be read, interpreted, and deciphered, then so too are cities. Works of literature are constantly being rewritten and renewed as readers of different times and contexts come into contact with them. It is the same with cities. People quite literally write and shape the city as they traverse its streets, inhabit its structures, and dwell in its spaces. Urbanity, like literature, is a place of boundless change and infinite meaning.”
Soon, the thesis became a kind of road map as I set out writing about D.C., drawn on tracing paper and laid over the quadrants of the city, helping to frame my thinking and lines of reporting. It helped me notice seemingly mundane details around town and to think about them as subplots in the larger story that is the city.
An example: Sometime that June, I came across a fairly generic press release from the D.C. government about a new walking and cycling trail that was about to open, going east-west across Rock Creek Park. After a little bit of research, I realized that the Klingle Valley Trail was much more than just a nice, 0.7 mile multi-use path. Wrapped up in its history were years of bitter fighting between neighborhoods east and west of the park, and between the competing demands of motorists and pedestrians. In fact, it wasn’t a stretch to say that the trail tells the story of a changed and changing Washington, D.C.
That summer, I biked all over the city on my 18-speed fold-up bike. After a few weeks, I noticed that new neighborhood grocery stores –– smaller than chains like Safeway and Whole Foods, but bigger than the corner liquor stores –– had popped up around town where they had not been the previous summer, when I had also interned at the Post. I wondered what Borges would think, and what he would say if he were to write a poem about these new grocery stores: Perhaps that they reflected some kind of change in the city, that in these new stores was a story about D.C.’s evolving identity. I started reading about the history of grocery stores in D.C. and about the city’s changing demographic, and soon my initial question spiraled into a piece about the resurgence of the small neighborhood grocery store.
Somehow, Borges and my thesis were following me everywhere I went looking for stories to report on.
And I’m not the only one who has found the senior thesis unexpectedly following me beyond Princeton.
Ari Satok ’14, a sociology major, wrote his thesis on value-based education in the United World College school movement and traveled around the world visiting different UWC campuses, listening to and documenting the incredible stories of students that he encountered. Since then, he has continued to explore the educational power of narratives, and his work has evolved into a book of poems, titled The Architect of Hope. It chronicles the life stories of 16 UWC students. He also hosts a series of talks and teaches storytelling workshops for different communities. “It’s been tremendously exciting and tremendously neat to continuously find new opportunities that in so many ways trace themselves back to that thesis,” Satok said.
And for David Walter ’12, a freelance journalist, the thesis has become a kind of “unexpected gift” that just keeps coming back to him. He wrote his thesis on the foreign policy of Pacific microstates for his Woodrow Wilson School major, traveling to some of the smallest countries in the world to conduct his research. What he’s discovered in the years since is that his expertise and connections in an underreported region is a hot commodity among editors at news publications. Even as recently as last November, he wrote a piece for the Washington Post Magazine on the Palauan ambassador to the United States. The thesis, he said, “kind of opened up my world” — and it’s “still opening up avenues now, a few years later.”
I again returned to the thesis recently and came across the following sentence, written by Borges in his 1970 short story “El Indigno”: “The picture of the city that we carry in our mind is always slightly out of date.”
But only slightly, I would add. Each time we revisit that picture, we look at it from a different context, and bring to it new ideas and lived experiences, adding layers of nuance and complexity. I hope to do the same with my thesis in the years to come, even as it sits idly in my computer files as a PDF. I hope to return regularly to scroll through the outdated pages of the thesis, and to come away each time with a new, updated way of thinking.
Mary Hui ’17 is a Hong Kong-based writer. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The New York Times, the South China Morning Post, and CityLab.