Colleen Cumberpatch needed a lot of space on her diploma for all of the programs and areas of study she completed during her time at Haverford. The psychology major took two minors—one in educational studies and one in child and family studies at Bryn Mawr—as well as a concentration in peace, justice, and human rights (PJHR). And she wanted her senior thesis to encompass all of those areas of interest.
“My peace, justice, and human rights concentration[’s] focus was on women’s and children’s rights, with a particular lens of trauma and healing,” says Cumberpatch. “I focused much of my overall academic work on topics of violence and trauma, and different ways of negotiating trauma. I also focused on broader structures that impact women and children, and how these take shape in the form of institutions or social norms.”
Though she was initially researching a different thesis topic, she stumbled upon a description of the characteristics of “feminist trauma” while writing a paper for her PJHR capstone class junior year and was immediately intrigued. From there she discovered the eventual subject of her work: feminist therapy, which positions sexism, patriarchy, and problematic gender norms and constraints as the causes of a client’s problems. (Her final thesis was called “Feminist Therapy: A Framework of Empowerment.”)
“I really see this thesis… as a capstone of not only my psychology major, but my entire time at Haverford,” she says. “It allowed me to integrate my minors and concentrations in a meaningful and interdisciplinary way, which is exactly what I wanted from the thesis experience. Having the opportunity to write an undergraduate thesis and present it to my fellow majors and department professors is really invaluable, and I feel very lucky.”
What did you learn from working on your thesis?
Gosh, I’m not sure how to really verbalize all that I learned from this project! I definitely strengthened my research skills, as well as integrating information in a succinct but nuanced way. I spent a lot of time making connections between themes in therapy techniques and different functions of our sexist society, which took a lot of my own thinking, as well as bringing together the ideas of several theorists. I learned a lot about feminist therapy itself, and feel very comfortable talking about it in detail and why I think it is important. Of course I’m not an expert on the topic, but I spent four months poring over the literature base and really developing a connection to the research, which allows me to feel confident in my knowledge and opinions about it, and that is always a plus. I think I find the unique proposal to be one of the most rewarding parts of the thesis, because it truly is my own work and ideas, and I feel really proud of all of the thought, careful planning, and energy that went into it.
How, if at all, has your thesis helped to guide your future career path?
This fall I will be attending Bank Street College in New York City for a dual degree program with the Columbia School of Social Work called Early Childhood Special and General Education. I will come out of the four-plus-year program with a master’s in clinical social work, concentrating on youth and families, and a master’s in early childhood [education]. This means that I will be able to be a classroom teacher and social worker, which is truly a dream! This thesis informs a lot of how I would like to interact with students and families, from both a teaching and social work standpoint. I hope to integrate the ideals I describe in my proposal into my own classroom—resisting gender norms, encouraging self-acceptance, and providing a space for children to talk about what the world teaches them about what it means to “be a boy” or “be a girl,” and how that might not always be a good thing. I hope to apply feminist therapy principles in my social work therapy with families, particularly when working with women and children who are survivors or victims of sexual and domestic abuse—my goal is to work with this population. This thesis allowed me to discover that this is not only possible, but I that I already have ideas for how to implement this meaningful part of my identity and [feminist] belief system into my future work.
Photo: (c) Northstar
“What They Learned” is a blog series exploring the thesis work of recent graduates.