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Each year, a committee of the faculty select an Honors Thesis or Project as especially meritorious based on their rigor and originality. These theses and projects are then shared to help future students excel in their theses and projects. We also invite the recipients to share their thoughts about their process and the results to de-mystify the process. 

2022 Honors Thesis Prize Recipient

Maxwell McDermott

"Political Representation in the City of Boston, 1822 – 2022" 

Max McDermott headshot

Max is a graduate of Duxbury High School and City Year AmeriCorps. At UMass Amherst, he served as a student club leader with the UMass Democrats, wrote for WMUA News, played ultimate frisbee, and hiked the mountains of the Connecticut River Valley. He completed his Honors Political Science studies in December 2021 and now works as a legislative aide for MA State Representative Lindsay Sabadosa.  

Why did you choose your thesis project? 

When I started in January 2021 (I wrote mine from spring to summer, which is unusual, but Professor Musgrave was willing to accommodate it as the Political Science Honors Program Director), I wanted to study local government: I knew nothing about this area, which I knew was home to some of the conflicts with the highest stakes there are. Policies on affordable housing, policing, and sanitation that get decided in city council rooms and mayors' offices can mean the difference between life and death and economic security or poverty for millions of people. At the same time, I was reading coverage of the beginning of what was clearly going to be an exceptional race for the Boston mayor's office. I came across Hometown Inequality, the book that Professor Ray La Raja co-wrote to investigate inequality in American local government. I asked him for his help in applying scholarship on local politics to better understand the conflicts over power and belonging that were starting to play out in Boston. He agreed, helped me define the questions I needed to ask, and provided guidance that let me stay focused throughout the year. 

What was the most challenging part of writing the thesis? 

Coming up with fun ideas for projects isn't hard. Narrowing your focus to a single strong idea is really challenging. It took discipline to eventually stop myself from exploring all the fascinating questions in local politics and start choosing one set of hypotheses that I'd have to either prove or disprove. I could only start making that choice after months of research, and I think a lot of other students probably feel the same. It's intimidating to have to let some ideas go: sometimes you'll have to cut yourself off from research in an area that you had invested time and effort into. You have to choose a final set of questions knowing your answers may change by the time you finish writing. But I don't regret having to go through any of that! It's part of the process of completing something as big as a thesis. 

What was the most rewarding part of writing the thesis? 

Studying local politics in the middle of a historic election in my region's biggest city was a lucky coincidence, and I'm glad I did it when I had the chance. I read two centuries of theories about local elections and power in city governments while watching those ideas play out in reality each day when checking the progress of the mayoral and city council campaigns in the Boston Globe. Studying something with high stakes that felt real and relevant gave energy to the entire process, and I never had trouble convincing myself to get through all of the work. I think that all of us in New England love Boston and take pride in it as a symbol of progress and accomplishment, and I'll always appreciate being able to better understand why democracy does and doesn't work for all the communities that call it home. That's what's so great about studying political science: understanding how power in a certain environment came to be is the first step to realizing that anything can change, and to feeling like you can participate in change and help move your community towards a better future.  

2022 Honors Thesis Prize Honorable Mention

Tamar Stollman

"Food for Change: Increasing Access and Implementing Justic in Western Massachusettes" 

Tamar Stollman is a recent graduate from UMass Amherst who earned a dual degree in political science and BDIC in (Individual Concentration) in International Social Justice and a minor in Spanish. Throughout her time at the university, Tamar worked as a peer mentor in the residential halls and was a staunch advocate for student rights through her work in SGA, the RA/PM Union, and the SBS Pathways Center. Moving forward, Tamar will be travelling to Spain for the following academic year to teach English.  

Why did you choose your thesis project?  

I had been brainstorming ideas for my senior thesis since my first semester at UMass. Since then, my academic concentrations changed and my passions were realized. I thought I wanted to complete an individually contracted thesis project, but when I saw that the department of communications was offering a thesis seminar called "Food as/and Communication" I jumped on the opportunity to combine my past academic and community-based justice work with my love for food. After more brainstorming and visiting food-justice organizations based in the Valley in August 2021, I knew that I wanted to learn more and devote my senior year to learning directly from food justice organizers themselves about their work, perspectives, and accomplishments.  

What was the most challenging part of writing the thesis? 

The most challenging part of writing the thesis was synthesizing. I completed five interviews with five very different organizations, each with different priorities and missions, that embraced various perspectives about community organizing, the American food system, and social justice in general. After compiling five hours’ worth of interview material, I needed to figure out how to make sense of it and synthesize it into a piece of written work. It took me weeks of brainstorming and reworking to create a narrative that could string through the entire thesis and incorporate the various elements from the organizations while emphasizing their diversity.  

What was the most rewarding part of writing the thesis?  

I absolutely loved conducting the interviews with leaders of various food justice organizations in Western Massachusetts. Each interviewee shared vast knowledge and wisdom of their lived experiences organizing for food justice, teaching me the ins and outs of what it means to be a food justice organizer. I found such a passion and dedication to the work of the participants that it has inspired me to continue seeking out food justice organizing wherever I may be. Furthermore, recognizing the perils of the global and American food systems is bleak, especially in a time of constant political and economic instability and climate disaster. However, seeing the impacts of the work that is being done in this small corner of the world gives me hope for the future, and shows me that there actually is something that I can do to make the world a better place.