If you’ told sociology major and educational studies minor T.J. von Oehsen ’18 that his senior thesis would be inspired by his experiences touring the New Jersey suburbs with a traveling circus two years ago, he probably wouldn’t have believed you. But his time in the Trenton Circus Squad (TCS), a nonprofit that teaches local teenagers everything from tightrope-walking to trapeze-swinging, proved to be as much fieldwork as it was a fun summer job.
“TCS has endeavored to combat the geographic separation of individuals across economic, racial, and historical barriers, as well as the prejudices and discrimination which come through those divisions,” von Oehsen says. “They do this by uniting a diverse set of youth from the inner city and surrounding suburbs, while asking disadvantaged teenagers to give back to their community on the way towards their own empowerment. I have worked with them for the past five summers and, over the course of that time, have noticed the ways in which squad members have tended to divide themselves by race even more so than by where they are from.”
Intrigued by this trend, von Oehsen resolved to make it the subject of his senior thesis. But the research process took him on a roller-coaster ride of revision he hadn’t anticipated.
“As I began to interview students at both UPenn and Temple, many emphasized the experience of being a person of color within a predominantly white institution of higher education and the difference of experience between women of color and men of color,” says von Oehsen. “ In an effort to center my thesis on what those I was listening to were telling me was most important to them, I redefined the thesis to center around their experiences.”
Created with the aid of his advisor, associate professor of sociology and “continuous and unrelenting support system” Matthew McKeever, the final product, “A Situational Understanding of Race Within Institutions of Higher Education,” intentionally spotlights the experiences of students of color at local colleges.
“Learning how to interpret and come to my own conclusions was one of the most rewarding parts of the process,” von Oehsen says, “and I can’t thank Matt enough for giving me that opportunity.”
What did you learn working on your thesis?
First, that participation in a cultural house on campus promotes a sense of validation and belonging that students identified as enabling them to further engage with and expand their definition of self with respect to their racial category. Second, that although these cultural houses are promoted as being able to offer this to all students of a specific race, many students feel alienated from spaces that are advertised as a support system for people with whom they share a racial category. Third, that although diversity and cross-racial interaction appear to be almost universally identified as desirable, there presently exists an asymmetry in the task of achieving such goals that places pressure on students of color to engage with and participate in white space. Fourth, that there are factors that determine the comfort level that students of color possess when engaging in white-dominated spaces [and their likelihood to do so.] These factors include, but are not limited to, previous experiences within white-dominated spaces (or lack thereof), and commonalities that they share with white students. Lastly, that it is more difficult for black men to gain access to institutions of higher education, but that, once attending the institution, black women are more frequently and systematically pressured into acting “white” in order to feel accepted within the institution.
What are the implications for your thesis research?
To improve the experiences of black women and men at predominantly white institutions and to foster a more inclusive environment that would allow everyone to reach their full potential, I identify both system-level and interaction-based solutions. Looking forward, we must work to find ways of changing both policy and relationships to foster a more inclusive environment within which any student can be assured of their safety and be given the opportunity to engage with themselves and their peers in new and challenging ways. Future efforts at reform must acknowledge the fact that not all individuals who identify as a certain race or gender are the same.
The steps that colleges and universities need to take are twofold. First, selective institutions of higher education must put an added emphasis on access as it relates to groups that are presently either underrepresented or excluded from such spaces. Second, selective institutions should feel a much heavier responsibility to ensure that every student they admit goes on to graduate from their institution, and feels safe whilst in attendance. It is only after ensuring the safety and confidence of all members of an institution of higher education that we may be able to turn towards an investigation of the ways in which that community can be further integrated across racial difference. Everyone associated with predominantly-white institutions must be better informed of the intersectional differences of black individuals in order to ensure the success of each individual and to foster a greater sense of cross experiential solidarity.
Does your thesis have anything to do helping to guide your future career path?
I was accepted to the Haverford House Fellowship for this coming year and [am] working at the Education Law Center in Center City. The Education Law Center fights for educational reform on multiple levels: fighting for equitable school funding, ensuring equal access to all students, and upending the school to prison pipeline into which many are pulled. As a sociology major and educational studies minor, I have developed a strong interest in educational and criminal justice reform efforts. Learning about the intricacies of two wildly inequitable systems, it is difficult for me to imagine working in a field that is not related to ameliorating issues relating to these two structures. At the Education Law Center, I will be able to continue to strengthen my skills as a social science researcher that I have begun to cultivate through studying sociology.
Photo by Holden Blanco ’17.
“What They Learned” is a blog series exploring the thesis work of recent graduates.