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Honors Fellowships program sees overwhelming demand

Erin Cearlock ’24, an anthropology and government double major, received Honors Fellowship funding from the Charles Center to work with a community located on the island of Rurutu. (courtesy photo)More than 80 undergraduates have applied for Honors Fellowships for summer ’24, marking surging interest in a program that provides up to $4,000 to rising seniors to conduct ten full-time weeks of research.

Each spring, nearly 200 rising seniors elect to complete an Honors project or thesis during the upcoming year. The selective process requires students to have a history of good academic merit, an Honors advisor, and a clearly defined research topic. Nearly half of these students seek Honors Fellowships to complete research that requires travel, housing, or other resources over the summer in order to succeed.

Elizabeth Harbron, director of the Charles Center, which administers William & Mary’s departmental Honors program, sees Honors research and faculty mentorship as an increasingly crucial step in students’ academic and professional journeys.

“We’re thrilled to see so many undergraduates seek support to jumpstart their Honors research before their senior year,” said Harbron.  “Moving forward, we’re hoping to be able to award even more Honors Fellowships.”
Last year, 66 students representing 23 fields received Honors Fellowship grants.  Whether in art, public policy, or neuroscience, Honors Fellowships allow students across Arts & Sciences to work closely with faculty mentors over the summer to launch projects they will continue throughout the academic year.
Anna Wilkinson ’24 received an Honors Fellowship from the Charles Center last summer to conduct research in biology and art history. (photo by Emmanuel Sampson)Anna Wilkinson ’24 received an Honors Fellowship last summer to research the history of herpetological (relating to reptiles and amphibians) illustrations by European artists and scientists in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. Her work combines research in both of her majors — biology and art history — and embraces an interdisciplinary approach.

“Undergraduate research is one of the main reasons that I went to William & Mary,” Wilkinson said. “I think the school does a really great job of making it possible for you to work on your thesis and still be a student.”

Though Wilkinson had not thought about completing a thesis during her undergraduate career, her passion for research and interest in pursuing work that was entirely her own led her to this path. Wilkinson is specifically focused on drawings of snakes, especially given the historically negative connotation of the reptile. She has specifically focused on a book that highlights the collection of a Dutch apothecary.

“The author of this book was one of the first people to say that snakes actually were really interesting, and they were beautiful. They were the only animal that he knew that was found on all the continents they had discovered,” Wilkinson said. “As a biology and art history person, I’m really interested in how science and art help each other. I believe that one can’t exist without the other.”

Wilkinson’s ultimate career path is to become a curator at a natural history museum, and she feels as though her thesis work will come in handy as she develops curatorial and historical preservation skills. With the funding she received from the Honors Fellowship, Wilkinson traveled to New York and Washington, DC to study various natural history books.  Her experience completing undergraduate research and thesis work was a surprising and fulfilling journey.

“It’s unmatched in terms of really getting firsthand experience and figuring out if this is something you want to do. I think it sounds kind of scary, but I’ve never felt like my research is the number one stressor in my life. It’s just an extra, fun thing,” Wilkinson said.
Biology major Abigail DeCesare ’24 received an Honors Fellowship through the Charles Center to examine the environmental characteristics of a federally threatened plant, the sensitive joint-vetch. (courtesy photo)Biology major Abigail DeCesare ’24 received an Honors Fellowship to examine the environmental characteristics of a federally threatened plant, the sensitive joint-vetch. DeCesare hopes to use this work to create a GIS model of potential habitats for the species in Virginia which will help conserve and monitor the plant. DeCesare was able to use her fellowship money to fund her stay in Williamsburg over the summer to work in the field.

“I’m not sure I would have been able to stay here over the summer if I was just doing it for free,” DeCesare said. “Research is what William & Mary was built for — it's so accessible here. I feel really lucky that I go to a school that values undergraduate research so much.”
Ginny Helmandollar ’24, a linguistics major, received a Charles Center Honors Fellowship to launch her research on human rights groups. (photo by Emmanuel Sampson)Ginny Helmandollar ’24, a linguistics major, researches human rights groups with the hopes of using her data to help these organizations bring more passion to their work, avoid burnout, and improve their services. Through her research, Helmandollar has also gained new skillsets and experiences that she hopes will lead to post-graduation opportunities.

“I know that it can be hard to talk to a professor . . . but taking little steps to make some connections – a lot of things come out of that. I know that we really have a research focus here, but if you don’t end up doing research in the capacity that you want, I think there are still ways to engage with your academics and with the real world,” Helmandollar said.
Erin Cearlock ’24, an anthropology and government double major, received Honors Fellowship funding through the Charles Center to research community-engaged cultural heritage management plans in French Polynesia. (courtesy photo)Erin Cearlock ’24, an anthropology and government double major, received Honors Fellowship funding for her thesis on community-engaged cultural heritage management plans in the Austral Islands in French Polynesia. Cearlock primarily worked with a community located on the island of Rurutu.

“The funding I got for researching over the summer was invaluable for helping me get not only access to rare books and resources I needed, but also for helping me do fieldwork and access all the equipment,” Cearlock said. “Getting to go to the island and work with that community has been such an incredible academic experience. I don’t think if I went to school anywhere else or didn’t have the classes or mentorship I have, that I would have found that. I’m very, very grateful.”

Cearlock hopes to use her passion for cultural heritage management work to go to law school and pursue cultural heritage law. Her goal is to help communities protect their heritage through legislation. Though she never planned on doing an honors thesis during her undergraduate career, Cearlock is thankful that she pursued this course and offered advice to other students.

“I think research looks different for everyone,” Cearlock said. “I think it’s also important for students to not quit. It’s an intense amount of pressure on themselves for whatever the end goal is, but when it comes to research, I’ve found that the best part of getting involved is the process.”

Honors theses can take many different shapes, especially for undergraduate students who are exploring their passions. Regardless of form or discipline, Charles Center funding supports research, field work, travel, and more to create opportunities that wouldn’t be available otherwise.

This year’s Honors Fellowships recipients will be presenting their research at the Graduate & Honors Research Symposium March 21-22 in Sadler.  Click here for more information. 

Interested in making a difference in the life of a W&M Honors student?  Visit the Charles Center’s giving page to support Honors Fellowships.