WHAT THEY LEARNED: Willa Austen Isikoff ’15

Her history senior thesis on the British policy regarding Basque child refugees during the Spanish Civil War studied the past to see how it can inform contemporary policy issues.

Willa Austen Isikoff ’15 has long been interested in how the past affects the present and future, so it’s not surprising that when the time came she declared a history major at Haverford. Her senior thesis, “Reluctant Saviors: British Policy on the Basque Child Refugees, 1937-1939,” likewise looked to the past to help her understand the future. The project not only explored what happened to the Basque child refugees sent to Britain during the Spanish Civil War, but also awakened in Isikoff a desire to help child refugees today. So now she is looking towards a career in international human rights law, representing children and refugees.

“I study history because I’m interested in how it informs—or can inform—contemporary policy debates and issues,” says Isikoff, who also minored in French. “I have worked with immigrant and refugee communities—and am extremely interested in these issues and in reforming our immigration system. I kept this in mind as I worked on my thesis. As I studied the British policy, I thought about how this could further help shape current-day policies. I think it is extremely important to understand past policies that worked—so we can build on them—and those that failed, so we don’t repeat them in the future.”

What inspired your thesis work?

I am particularly interested in 20th century European history and the way events and policies during this period disrupted the daily lives of people and prompted mass refugee movements. My interest was fueled and nourished by the many classes I took as well as [by] during summer internships working with immigrant and refugee communities, most notably undocumented minors. I was fortunate enough to spend a year studying abroad in Paris and Seville. During this time, I did extensive research on such populations as well as on events that prompted them to flee their homes in search of new, unfamiliar—and often unfriendly—ones. I became especially interested in the fate of the nearly 4,000 Basque child refugees sent to Britain during the Spanish Civil War after learning more about the long reach and cruel impact of the bloody conflict, and after discovering Britain’s reluctance to save the children caught in the crossfire. This policy clashed with its long-touted history of humanitarianism, and raised questions I wanted to explore and try to answer. The most burning: Why was it so hesitant to help these young war victims—and why did it strip them of their identities in the process?

What did you learn from working on your thesis?

The thesis process was both an intimidating and extraordinarily rewarding experience. It was definitely a challenge at times, especially since it wasn’t the only work I had, but it forced me to stay focused, and, ultimately, I learned an enormous amount and it greatly enhanced my research and writing skills. It was extremely rewarding to see the finished product after a year of hard work. It helped me see my potential and what I am capable of doing when I put my mind to it.


Photo: Children preparing for evacuation from Spain, during the Spanish Civil War, some giving the Republican salute. Courtesy of the Olga Brocca Smith Estate.

“What They Learned”is a blog series exploring the thesis work of recent graduates.