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An Inside Look at the Honors Program

An Inside Look at the Honors Program By Allison Balter '06

The Beginning

Allison Balter '06 graduated this year with a special major in sociology/anthropology and educational studies.
Although my time at Swarthmore is really four years' worth of memories, one of the most memorable aspects was the culmination of my participation in the Honors program. The exams themselves lasted no more than two weeks, but they represented the conclusion of two years of preparation.

I developed at Swarthmore a deep interest in social justice in educational policy and, more specifically, in issues surrounding indigenous language maintenance and education. These interests emerged as I explored introductory courses in my major fields and, subsequently, embarked on study abroad and summer internship experiences.

During the summer between my sophomore and junior years, I volunteered at a youth center on a Lakota Sioux reservation in South Dakota and experienced firsthand some of the most pressing issues that American Indian children face both in and out of school. Almost immediately after my return, I departed for a semester abroad in Ecuador. I chose Ecuador not only because I wanted to hone my Spanish skills in Latin America, but also because I wanted to study in a country with a strong indigenous presence and political movement. There I pursued independent research on bilingual-intercultural education in Kichwa schools. Both of these experiences provided me with a comparative perspective on indigenous education and a practical framework to approach my academic inquiries.



In her visual ethnography seminar, Allison and her group produced their own anthropological documentary.
When I returned to Swarthmore, I began my actual Honors preparations, starting with a seminar in Urban Education. This class sparked in me a fascination in how broad federal policies do or do not interact with grassroots interests, which would later form the framework for my senior thesis.

My other seminars - Literacy and Numeracy Research and Visual Ethnography - continued to guide me in questioning ideas of power, language, identity, and representation. In the Literacy seminar, we engaged in action research in actual classrooms, exploring the teaching of persuasive writing to elementary students and working with local teachers to develop innovative and locally appropriate strategies for improving this kind of instruction.

My fourth Honors preparation was my year-long senior thesis, which incorporated lenses from both of my disciplines and all of these seminars but was based on research I had begun over the previous summer. With the help of a Summer of Social Action Award from the Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility, I worked with linguistics professor Ted Fernald as a grant writer for the non-profit Navajo Language Academy, which sponsors annual workshops for the study and maintenance of the Navajo language. At the Navajo Reservation, I learned about the teachers' perspectives on language maintenance and priorities for their Navajo students. In the year following this experience, I pursued larger questions of how federal policies affect these teachers' goals and worked closely with my two thesis advisors as I crafted my research into a document that I ultimately titled Toward an Ethnographic Analysis of Federal Education Policy: The Effects of the No Child Left Behind Act on Language and Culture Programs in Navajo Public Schools.

After completing such a major endeavor, I felt ready to graduate. In all honesty, once the time had come for serious Honors preparation to begin, I was starting to feel frustrated and burnt out. When I look back on these weeks of intense preparation, however, the frustration dissipates and what remains with me is the collaborative nature of the process and the bonds I formed with my fellow Honors students in the midst of the intensity.

Last summer at the Navajo Language Academy, Allison joined Professor of Linguistics Ted Fernald and teachers from reservation schools to learn firsthand about Navajo language education.
As classes ended and the written exams approached, I consistently spent more and more time with these people. Some of our professors started to tease us about how inseparable we'd become. But we were not only working together to study and strategize, we were creating a support network.

These social and academic bonds continued even after the written exams were over. My visual ethnography seminar celebrated the end of our exam by designing seminar t-shirts with favorite quotes and inside jokes from our study sessions. Nevertheless, with the end in sight, we had to push each other to stay focused in the week between written and oral exams. Ultimately, we worked together like true academics and continued to support one another like friends.

Once the external examiners arrived on campus and the oral exams were underway, I felt nervous but also confident in my preparation. I knew deep down that although it felt as if everything came down to the judgments made in these short conversations, in reality they were merely symbolic of the years of work I had done and the relationships I had formed with my classmates and professors.

I won't deny that I felt intimidated. While I was excited about the opportunity to converse with these experts, their credentials were overwhelming. My thesis examiner Nancy Hornberger, for instance, was one of the premier scholars of sociolinguistics in indigenous education. She had done the majority of her fieldwork in Andean countries (including Ecuador), so I was already familiar with her writing; in fact, I had cited her several times in my thesis! The idea that she was coming to Swarthmore just to talk to me about my thesis was hard to wrap my mind around.


The Exams

Despite my fears, these final conversations proved to be a truly remarkable culmination to my Swarthmore career. Over my four oral exams, I experienced a wide array of emotions. I felt a lump form in my throat as my first examiner deemed my responses to some of his questions "strident" and told my I had "pushed some of his buttons." Still, I left the room feeling confident that I had stood my ground and engaged him in a heated debate.
After this somewhat shaky start, each subsequent oral felt less like an exam and more like a stimulating conversation. At times, I found myself drifting out of my body, listening to myself speak, and thinking, "Man, you really know what you're talking about!" I started to feel less like a student and more like an academic having an engaging conversation with an equal - defending my ideas, questioning theirs, and tackling larger philosophical questions collaboratively. As we constructed meaning together, I caught myself referring to concepts from my other seminars or questions I had raised in my other exams. In my Literacy exam, for instance, I talked about the possibilities for objective representation in relation to elementary students' literacy identities in school, reflecting on my own struggles with the politics of representing subjects in the film we produced for Visual Ethnography. In these conversations, everything began to connect. That's when I truly understood the value of the Honors program for my own undergraduate experience.

When I entered my fourth and final exam - my thesis - I felt confident and ready to discuss the work that I'd spent over a year completing. I soon realized that my fears about my examiner's prestige couldn't be further from the truth. She truly respected my work as a scholarly contribution to her field, and together we wrestled with issues that continued to nag at both of us. We used our common experience in the Andean region as a point of comparison for my Navajo case study and discussed how I could develop and improve upon my methodology to make even more significant findings. She even brought with her additional resources she thought I should investigate, including one of her unpublished papers for me to take home. In the end, she couldn't have been a more perfect examiner to have a conversation with, and I truly felt as if I had created something that not only reflected my passions but also earned a place within the academic discourse.

Although through its public honorifics the Honors program introduces an element of competition into Swarthmore academics that is otherwise perceived as taboo, what I will remember most about the experience is not a competitive frenzy but, rather, the academic and social collaboration that defined my preparation and the examination experience itself. Now that I can truly relax and reflect on the months of hard work that I've just left behind, I realize what an accomplishment my experience in the Honors program was. More importantly, I am confident that I will return to these issues I have spent so much time considering because, through my studies at Swarthmore - both in and out of the Honors program - they have become deeply ingrained in who I am.


Allsion Balter '06 earned highest honors for her efforts.  She now works in Philadelphia as a public education advocate at the Education Law Center, a non-profit legal advocacy organization working for educational equity in Pennsylvania schools. Write to her at