It was Central’s study abroad program that sealed the deal for Emma Simmons when she was choosing a college. “I always knew I wanted to study abroad,” says Simmons. “Many of the schools I was looking at ran their programs through Central, so I decided to come here rather than go somewhere that was just going to use this program.”
Simmons, a senior from Davenport, graduated this spring with a double major in anthropology and Spanish and a double minor in French and theatre. While still an undergraduate, Simmons was able to experience opportunities typically only available to grad students, thanks in part to a tenacious drive, a supportive professor and an accommodating educational institution.
The British Isles have fascinated Simmons since she can remember. While in high school, Simmons started paying attention to news of Scotland’s independence movement, following it all the way through the fall of 2014, when Scottish citizens voted down a national referendum to make theirs an independent country, by a narrow margin of 55 to 45 percent.
Cynthia Mahmood, Frank Moore Endowed Chair of Anthropology and professor of anthropology at Central, recalls learning of Simmons’ draw to Scottish independence during Intro to Cultural Anthropology, the first of many courses Simmons took with her. It was a topic with which the professor wasn’t extremely familiar. “I had studied nationalist and separatist movements in other parts of the world, so I was immediately interested when Emma mentioned it,” she says.
Knowing Simmons’ desire to learn more about Scotland, Mahmood last year suggested she apply for a Central College Sustainability Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship supported by the Margaret A. Cargill Foundation to complete a summer research internship there.
“I don’t think I would have had the idea to travel to Scotland if she hadn’t told me about this opportunity,” says Simmons. Although usually done at the graduate level, Mahmood has taken other undergraduates in the field before, believing that fieldwork is the best indicator of whether a person is really cut out for a career in anthropology. However, not all students are ready for the challenge this early. “Emma is a particularly mature and independent person with an extensive travel background and a strong motivation for anthropology, so I knew she’d do well,” Mahmood says.
As evidenced by the interest she took in Simmons, dedication to student learning has marked Mahmood’s career. During her first stint teaching at Central in 1989, she received the Outstanding Performance Award for Teaching. At the University of Maine, she was inducted into Phi Kappa Phi as Outstanding Faculty Member, and she received the Edmund P. Joyce, C.S.C. Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching while at the University of Notre Dame.
After introducing her to the grant, Mahmood helped Simmons write a proposal and focus her research. Mahmood herself applied for and received funding from the Moore Family Foundation. Since it was a faculty development grant particularly focused on teaching and faculty/student collaboration, Mahmood was able to travel and work with Simmons throughout the trip. Funding also came from the Central College Office of Academic Affairs.
For five weeks, the teacher/professor pair traveled throughout Scotland carrying out their ethnographic research in Edinburgh, Inverness, Aberdeen and Glasgow. Anthropologists conduct research differently than other social sciences, adopting an on-the-ground approach, in which they engage in participant-observation. The method involves talking face-to-face to a large number of people instead of doing surveys or formal interviews. This allows the researchers to uncover realities that wouldn’t otherwise be apparent from other forms of social science studies. “For example,” says Mahmood, “we hung out with folks in pubs or cafes. We talked to people on trains. We talked to political figures at the Highlands Council in Inverness. And so on. Anyone, anywhere.”
Simmons discovered an encampment of independence-minded people that turned out to be informative outside the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood. In an article they wrote, Mahmood and Simmons described, “Residents are determined to stay here until Scotland attains independence, despite threats of eviction from the grounds.”
It turns out Simmons and Mahmood probably couldn’t have chosen a more relevant time to conduct their research abroad, considering the implications the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom will likely have for Scottish independence. Mahmood says that since the Brexit vote, Scottish nationalists are again gearing up for a referendum, since many Scots want to stay with the European Union even though Britain voted to leave.
“This experience has given me the courage I needed to take a leap of faith.”
When they returned from Scotland, their work continued. Mahmood and Simmons coauthored an oped that was published in The Des Moines Register, followed by a longer article for Anthropology News, the most widely read publication in the anthropology field. They continue to work on a longer academic piece that they will also publish. “It is still strange for me to think that I have already been published,” says Simmons. The duo has also given several talks about their experience to Central faculty, staff and donors.
Simmons recognizes that opportunities such as she’s had at Central wouldn’t likely be offered to students at larger universities until graduate school. “I know I wouldn’t have had the same individualized attention that I had here,” she says. One advantage of attending a school the size of Central is the ability to develop relationships early on in students’ academic careers. “At Central, students have the opportunity to get to know faculty and develop initiatives like this,” says Mahmood. “This is also possible at large universities, but less likely.” She also credits Central administration with trusting its faculty with projects such as this. “Unique to a small liberal arts college like Central was the institution’s willingness to back me up in turning to a new topic I had not studied before in my research career — I really appreciate that.”
Simmons says the venture helped her make decisions about life after Central. “After I graduate, I plan to spend a year with the AmeriCorps Vista program,” she says. “This experience has given me the courage I needed to take a leap of faith.”