Anthropology Student Receives Top Dissertation Fellowship
Last fall PhD candidate Angelina Zontine (anthropology) received a $23,185 Wenner-Gren Dissertation Fellowship for her research project, “Remaking the Political in ‘Fortress Europe’: Cultural and Political Practice In Italian Social Centers.” The Wenner-Gren Dissertation Fellowship is considered the “gold standard” of achievement for anthropology students.
Zontine studies innovative forms of political engagement and alternative notions of participation and belonging that are being enacted by groups of young people at occupied, collectively run social centers in Bologna, Italy. A diverse range of people come together at these sites to produce culture, organize themselves and generally be active and participatory citizens, but the centers are controversial and under attack by the municipal administration. Zontine will spend eleven months in Bologna, conducting ethnographic field research on the causes and character of activists’ conflict(s) with local authorities. Her preliminary research in Europe was done through the Anthropology Department’s European Field Studies Program.
Homeschooled as a youth in Whidbey Island, WA, Zontine says she loved being able to study “pretty much whatever interested me, in whatever combination made sense and at my own pace.” When she eventually attended school, she was “bewildered by the seemingly arbitrary schedule and the way subjects were taught separately from each other.”
As an undergraduate at Evergreen State, which offers interdisciplinary team-taught classes and independent study instead of traditional majors and requirements, Zontine constructed a course of study tailored to her interests. “I have always loved being a student,” she says, “but when I thought about getting my graduate degree, I had trouble choosing a program because it was hard for me to match my various interests with an established discipline.”
Two “amazing” professors, anthropologists by training, helped Zontine see that “anthropology can be one of the most flexible, all-encompassing disciplines because it offers a way of approaching questions and problems rather than a strictly defined corpus of theory and practice concentrated on restricted or predefined subject matter.” She selected UMass Amherst because the department includes all four of anthropology’s subfields: cultural, linguistic, archaeological, and physical—and fosters their interplay. “I was impressed and excited by the descriptions of faculty research and classes, especially the concentration of those who study modern Europe,” Zontine explains. “I have always been fascinated with Europe, and when I saw that the department offers an innovative field program in European studies—a three-semester course that allows students to learn how to do anthropological research by actually designing and carrying out their own short research projects—I knew it was for me.”
Asked to comment on receiving the Wenner-Gren Dissertation Fellowship, Zontine says, “The award represents both an affirmation and a challenge. I conceived this research project more than two years ago, but it has taken me a long time—and countless revisions—to finally put together a successful application. I am intensely satisfied that the project does justice to the complex and intriguing things that are going on here in Bologna and that it also makes sense to a wider community of anthropologists.”
Zontine is thrilled to be able to devote all of her attention and energy to this project. “I know from experience how hard it is to combine work and teaching, work and research, work and just about anything else. I’m looking forward to finally being able to immerse myself in the research process without worrying about how I’m going to pay for my pens and notebooks. But I also see this award as a challenge, a push to really deliver on the potential of my planned research.”
Faculty at UMass Amherst, especially her graduate advisor Jacqueline Urla, Zontine says, have been extremely generous with their time and advice, “even though advising graduate students doesn’t gain them recognition when it comes time for tenure review. They have helped me stay focused on getting my degree while consistently challenging and inspiring me to rethink and develop my interests.”
The European Field Studies Program too has been a great experience for Zontine. For this program students have to first design a research project from scratch, then apply for funding, carry it out, analyze the results, and write a research report. “The entire process helped me see the relationship between research design and the kinds of results a researcher is able to present,” says Zontine. “It gave me the chance to learn by doing and by making mistakes. Here in Bologna, I am using techniques I tried out on my project in London that focused on health promotion projects among recent immigrants. And I’m exploring some of the same underlying questions about citizenship and political participation.”
Graduate school, Zontine acknowledges, has a tendency to “swallow people whole. I’ve tried to carve out some time when I can to spend time with my partner, make art projects, travel and read fiction. At the same time I’ve tried to incorporate things that are important to me into my research—like by studying groups of people who are involved in struggling for social justice and creating alternative cultural spheres.”
December 30, 2008