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University Scholars create projects beyond typical plan of study

by Sherry Fisher - April 7, 2008

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One student immersed herself in an 18th-century opera. Another studied sustainable agriculture in rural India. A third surveyed people in South Africa and Brazil about conservation issues.

These students are among 21 undergraduates in the University Scholars program who will graduate in May.

The highly competitive program enables students to design plans of study geared toward their special interests.

Working closely with faculty advisors, they undertake learning opportunities beyond the typical plan of study, and produce a scholarly and creative project such as a work of art or a research thesis.

Graduating as a University Scholar is the highest academic honor the University bestows upon undergraduates.

Julienne Pendrys’ love of singing brought her to UConn, where she majors in music with a focus in vocal performance.

Pendrys is researching and performing Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s comic opera La Serva Padrona for her University Scholar project.

She is exploring the musical, historical, and literary context of the work, and will give an original performance. Her paper will analyze the historical context of the piece, and how that affects the performing of it.

“I wanted to do a project that could represent me as a student, and as a performer,” she says.

“When you research a work, you create a more insightful and informed performance. Also, performing the piece adds so much more meaning to it. It brings it to life.”

La Serva Padrona is one of the first comic intermezzos, and one of the most famous, Pendrys says.

“Historically, intermezzos are intended to lighten the mood of an opera, and originally served as entertainment between acts. It evolved from more of a distraction while the set was being moved around to a full-fledged art form with its own dedicated time, characters, music, and plot.”

The storyline, she says, is about a smart, cheeky, opinionated maid who runs the show and tries to get her master to marry her.

She adds, “I’ve loved the whole experience. It’s amazing to be able to perform a work that I’ve researched so in depth.”

University Scholar Monoswita Saha conducted research in India on sustainable agriculture. Saha is majoring in economics and English, with a minor in Indian Studies.

Saha was born in Calcutta but grew up in Connecticut. “All my family – except my nuclear family – lives in India,” she notes.

“I would go back periodically and see the changes in my home town every time. We went from brick roads to paved roads, and no malls to huge malls. I became very interested in the changes and those who were affected by them.”

For the English part of her thesis, she has written a series of short stories, essays, and poetry, after interviewing people “from businessmen to illiterate maids, to taxi drivers, teachers and students,” in Calcutta, Pune, and Bangalore.

Literature, says Saha, “pushes through a voice that you’ll never get in a journal article. I wanted to convey the experience of the people I spoke to in a manner that a broad audience could enjoy.”

University Scholar Julienne Pendrys is coached in singing by Professor Constance Rock, not shown, and Allan Conway, adjunct instructor, at the piano.
University Scholar Julienne Pendrys is coached in singing by Professor Constance Rock, not shown, and Allan Conway, adjunct instructor, at the piano.
Photo by Peter Morenus

The economics part of her project took her to West Bengal, where she researched sustainable living initiatives among people in rural agricultural environments and tribal societies.

She worked with the Development Research Communication Service Center, a non-governmental organization.

“The people don’t have much power to say how their lives are evolving,” says Saha, who speaks fluent Bengali.

“I was seeing whether they had a viable model of sustainable development that would not impose things like chemical fertilizers or genetically modified seeds, and seeing if these people can still make a good living and live the way they want to.”

Saha says she has learned things she would not have found in a book: “The experience has definitely influenced what I want to do for the rest of my life.”

Jeffrey “Steve” Ferketic’s project took him to Cape Town, South Africa, and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where he conducted research on conservation policy.

“There are problems in many developing countries, where there are a lot of environmental resources that need to be conserved,” he says.

“It’s hard to balance social needs, in terms of poverty reduction, and conservation initiatives.”

Ferketic, a biology and political science major, conducted research at the Macassar Dunes Conservation Area in the Cape Flats region of Cape Town, comparing the attitudes toward conservation of four key stakeholder groups: paid professional conservators, unpaid volunteer conservators, and residents from two different impoverished communities living near the conservation area.

Ferketic says he believes local communities should play a large role in the creation of conservation policy: “Conservation policy should provide the surrounding community with tangible benefits. My research tries to identify a middle ground, where both conservationists and the surrounding community are happy.”

Ferketic says studying abroad in Cape Town during his sophomore year sparked his interest in conducting research there.

He conducted a second stakeholder analysis in Rio de Janeiro at the Cagarras Archipelago, a proposed Marine Protected Area off the coast of Ipanema Beach.

There, he spoke with more than 100 fishermen, researchers, eco-tourism officials, recreational users, and conservationists about how the area could be planned to provide all the groups with some tangible benefits.

He says field work was exciting: “It’s a great way to get to know a city and feel that you’re part of it. You get to know people from different walks of life, and see how they deal with the same problem. It was a unique learning experience.”

Pendrys, Saha, and Ferketic are among 11 University Scholars who will present their research during panel sessions on Friday, April 11, from 8:30 a.m. to noon, in the Student Union Theatre.

Pendrys will also perform La Serva Padrona on April 26 at 3 p.m. in von der Mehden Recital Hall.

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