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When Learning is a Labor of Love

In the final projects that many students pursue before they graduate, deep personal motivation, and great mentors, lead to extraordinary achievements.

While a formal capstone project is not a requirement for a Packer diploma, many students conclude their Upper School experience with an extended project in an Advanced Topics class, the Independent Science Research Program, the Senior Thesis program, or an independent study. Different motivations lead them to take on such projects: an interest sparked in a prior class, a desire to test one’s creative ability, the drive to champion a cause or pay homage, the need to examine one’s identity, or a question that cannot be ignored.

We asked a dozen young alumni about their final projects in these programs. They spoke of steep learning curves and bouts of self-doubt. They recalled challenges that were “uncomfortable,” “intimidating,” and “scary.”

Yet none of them dwelt on these labors. Ben Bienstock ’16, who pursued two independent studies in fiction writing, summed it up simply: “Working that hard was really worth it.”

Universally, they spoke with pride at having achieved things far beyond what they had imagined they could do — things that, in many cases, have influenced the course of their lives. 

Taking a Creative Leap

Hawa Sako ’11 still considers her independent study in songwriting with Spanish teachers (and avid musicians) Rashad Randolph and Matt Urbania “probably my most empowering experience at Packer.” 

Initially, Hawa felt self-conscious about her interest in songwriting, concerned that her lack of instrumental ability would prove insurmountable. “Trying something new is always uncomfortable,” she says. But with Señor Randolph’s and Señor Urbania’s encouragement, she says, “[I learned that] the things I saw as barriers didn’t have to be.” 

Encouraged by her foray into songwriting at Packer, at Princeton, Hawa says, she learned to play to her strengths — lyrics and melodies ­­— and partnered with a musical collaborator who played guitar. She and a college classmate created an electro-soul duo called BROWNI, which has over 25 songs on SoundCloud and an EP on Spotify. “We are still creating music to this day.”

She credits this independent study for the “confidence and validation” that allowed her to view music as a realistic pursuit. “I never imagined that I would one day be writing songs and [that music would be] such a large part of my identity.”

Championing a Cause

For her senior thesis, Ellie Story ’17 channeled her passion for women’s issues and social issues into Letters to my Younger Sister, a 128-page collection of art and writing by a “diverse and passionate” group of female Packer students, teachers, and parents. She was mentored by English teacher Loryn Evanoff.
“Having the opportunity to create the book was a great way for me to encapsulate what I had learned and experienced at Packer, as well as allowing me to highlight all the amazing women I met throughout my time there.”
Ellie credits her senior thesis experience with her decision to pursue a gap year before enrolling at Barnard College. She spent the fall as an intern at an advocacy organization in her native London, and is currently in Cartagena, Colombia, providing educational, career, and health support to adolescent mothers and their children living in poverty. 

Read an excerpt of Ellie’s introduction to the book below:

At the beginning of this year, I was asked [in Peter Melman’s Literature of New York City] to write a letter to a hypothetical younger sister after reading Edith Wharton’s novella The Old Maid. Having a younger sister of my own, I connected with this notion of passing down advice to her, and that made me think about the advice I was given by my older sister. I started to reflect on what I had learned and what advice I wish I had been given when navigating my own girlhood. My entire book sprang from this notion.

Although a lot of the faces and stories behind the incredible women that make up this book look different from the outside, a lot of the collective struggles and advice intersect. I’m hoping with this book that any girl can connect to one of the girls amongst the pages. But more importantly, I hope that from somewhere within these pages, there is a light that goes off, a moment of recognition, a moment of understanding, or a moment of reassurance."

Navigating Uncharted Territory

Lia pursuing her research at the Brooklyn Historical Society in October 2015
Dr. Sarah Strauss’s Advanced Topics history class, known formally as Advanced Topics in Conducting Scholarly Research in the Archives, is one of the most project-driven courses in the Advanced Topics program. Each student pursues research in Packer’s archives, now housed at the Brooklyn Historical Society, where Dr. Strauss’s students often spend class time.

For her year-long research project, Lia Di Bitonto ’17 explored the letters and postcards of Alice Van Vliet, a Packer teacher who traveled throughout Europe in the 1920s.

“My goal was to assess and reflect on the shifting ideals for educated white women like Alice: Did she feel the need to play a submissive role in her travels due to the gender norms of the era? Or do the thrills, subtle romances, and rebellions that her writing is tinged with suggest that travel acted as a form of ‘rebirth’ for her?”

Unlike in previous history classes, Lia found that there was not a myriad of scholarship she could consult. “I was forced to take ownership of my research. Instead of looking to historical literature for answers, I learned how to use it as a springboard to synthesize my own ideas.”
Lia feels the impact of her research experience in her studies at Wesleyan University. “AT Archives taught me the value of navigating uncharted territories. [It gave] me the confidence to draw connections and form arguments that have never been made before, and to not rely on a blueprint.” 

Bridging Different Disciplines

Maddie Lloyd ’17 first became interested in the Industrial Revolution’s impact on women in George Snook’s Advanced Topics in European History. For her senior thesis, mentored by dance teacher Mandy Stallings, Maddie choreographed a dance that explored the Industrial Revolution and the development of feminism.

“The contrast between women’s entrance into the workforce and their suppression in it by male factory owners, factory workers, and their husbands was of particular interest to me,” she says. Now in her first year at the University of Edinburgh, she is looking more deeply into the women who participated in factory work and those who were “still excluded from the narrative” of industrialization.

Maddie’s senior thesis “definitely” took her out of her comfort zone. “[It made] me reevaluate my own identity as a privileged white woman. It allowed me to understand feminism, womanhood, and my own identity in a broader, more well-rounded way.”

Exploring Identity

“Amazing, to say the least” is how Ayinde Castro ’17 summarizes his experience in Elizabeth Eagle’s Advanced Topics in Photography. During his senior year, his 13th at Packer, he set out to explore identity in a capstone project.

At local and national student conferences he had attended, "people [of color] let me know that they felt there wasn't an outlet for them to express their feelings." Mentored by Ms. Eagle and Semeka Smith-Williams, Packer's Director of Diversity and Equity, Ayinde created a powerful series of portraits and interviews of 14 students of color at Packer and other New York City independent schools. [See excerpts below.] His goal was to give "a voice to the voiceless."

Now a freshman at Claremont-McKenna College, Ayinde recently landed several photography gigs. He hopes some day to own a gallery.

Blake Boadi ’17 | Ghanian

Being a person of color and a predominantly white institution is a challenge my father prepared me for. He always told me that I had to make sure I was a step ahead of everyone else."


Aly Aly ’17 | Egyptian

"It's hard to relate to most of the kids here. They don't and never will understand the struggle. Being a person of color is another thing to worry about."


Stephanie LaPorte ’17 | Puerto Rican

When I was younger, I would try hard not to be seen as the 'stereotypical' Latina until I realized that hiding parts of my identity was more harmful than embracing who I really was."


Addressing a Burning Question

Oakley Friedberg ’13 pursued a senior thesis because something was bothering him: his awareness that five years of Spanish study allowed him to navigate complex grammatical structures but not to speak the language entirely comfortably. With former Latin teacher Susanna Ciotti advising him, he wanted to understand what it means to acquire language, particularly a second language.

Oakley dove into language-acquisition theory and explored several innovative teaching methods that resonated with it. One was Where Are Your Keys? [WAYK], a method that entails “pure immersion from the beginner level, where every linguistic item is acquired within the context of that [same] language, aided by props, body language, and a little bit of sign language.”

“One of the most significant concepts I came across in my research is the distinction between language learning and language acquisition. I discovered that I had been learning Spanish but not acquiring it.”

To truly acquire a language, he explains, one must do the same things that infants do: “first listen and babble responses, then map sounds to props, and finally [perform] simple storytelling that can evolve in complexity — all while embracing an intuitive ‘feel’ for the language.”

That “feel” often excludes high-level grammatical analysis, he explains, which is why people who acquire languages as children can usually detect a grammatical error, whether or not they can explain it. It was that intuitive grasp of Spanish that he felt he lacked.

While a student at Brown University, Oakley spent a summer working with WAYK on a First Nations reservation in British Columbia and helping to save the natives’ language from extinction. He also expanded his interest in language to include psychology, artificial intelligence, neurobiology, and philosophy of mind. 

Now, Oakley works as a cognitive process transformation consultant at IBM. As a member of the Watson Health Consulting Services team, he helps leverage Watson’s artificial intelligence capabilities for companies in the healthcare and life-science markets. 


Bridging Different Disciplines

When a three-dimensional surface — such as the Earth’s — is mapped onto a two-dimensional surface, distortions inevitably occur. Nadia Grisaru ’16 and Sara Van Horn ’16 were introduced to the mapmaker’s dilemma in Sameer Shah’s multivariable calculus class. For a joint senior project, they decided to explore how different map projections yield different distortions.

Putting their discoveries in a sociological context, they noted that map distortions have influenced perceptions and actions throughout history. They concluded that “it is dangerous to believe in the objectivity of scientific and numerical thought,” noting that such a belief vests scientists and mathematicians with the “power to claim Truth where there is only perspective.”

Pursuing complex math on their own was a challenging but worthwhile experience. “I struggled to understand some of the math at first,” says Nadia, “but I proved to myself that, with enough time and thought, I could teach myself difficult concepts.” Nadia is now a sophomore at Yale University, “[juggling her] interests of geology and geophysics, chemistry, and history.”

After Packer, Sara spent a gap year traveling and “thinking about the professed objectivity of official maps, specifically the maps that detail our nation’s borders and their use as a tool to sanction state violence.” Her love for maps has also sparked connections: at Brown University, the first person she became friends with “had an upside-down map on her wall!”

Taking a Creative Leap 

For his two-year independent study in music theory and composition with Paul Riggio, Jared Chan ’16 wrote and performed a three-movement suite for a woodwind quartet. Already a dedicated musician, Jared saw how his enhanced understanding of theory bolstered his performance skills. 

And composing in its own right became of great interest to him. “I’d want to outdo myself each time I composed something new. I’d ask myself, ‘What haven’t I done before?’ or ‘What’s going to sound good and be technically appropriate, but difficult to figure out?’ These habits followed me to college.” 

On a music scholarship, Jared enrolled at Loyola University, in New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz. Though he recently decided to major in chemistry, he still “lives and breathes music.” He plays jazz regularly around town, including at the Sunday gospel brunch at the House of Blues.

Jared reflects on how his independent study pushed him toward things he had avoided. “Before Packer I was a self-taught guitarist who had no knowledge of theory, form, style, or anything technical for that matter. Mr. Riggio encouraging me to learn the nuts and bolts put me constantly on trial, though I’m a much better musician for it today.”

Paying Homage 

For his final project in Advanced Topics in Photography, Eli Isikoff ’17 pondered a way to connect with New York City — “the city I love” — before heading off to the rural environment of Penn State University. He found himself drawn to something he felt goes unnoticed in our urban environment: the juxtaposition between old buildings and new construction. Photography not only depicts an image, he says, “it can change the way people view that image — as well as their surroundings.” 



Exploring Identity

Now in her first year at Yale University, Brittany Boyce ’17 wrote “The Friendship of Calculus: A Girl’s Journey Into the Unwavering Depths of The Third Dimension” as a final project for Sameer Shah’s multivariable calculus class. Her long form essay is adapted below.

Calculus was never meant to be unreachable. Renowned mathematician Edward Frenkel once said, “Mathematics directs the flow of the universe, lurks behind its shapes and curves, and holds the reins of everything from tiny atoms to the biggest stars.” But the beauty that math holds has become a privilege unreachable to those who are marginalized every day for their skin color, race, and sexuality. Every day students of color and women are told that they cannot or should not see this beauty, a beauty held from them until they climb and fight to the point where they are so bruised, broken, and beaten that they give up.

Being a black girl who was able to show her intelligence at such a young age, I was set on the path to success. Do your school work, get a good job, be successful. But at the time, I didn’t really know what it meant to be successful. I still don’t. Most of the time, success is dependent on whether or not I beat the system. I was never told to do what makes me happy. I was told to do what makes me money. I never had the privilege to study what interested me, or what I was passionate about, and I never knew that having the chance to delve into European history or a new language was a privilege. I was too busy preparing for survival, getting a headstart so that the pressure and rigor of a predominantly white and male setting wouldn’t defeat me. 

“Path Independence” shows that the value of a line integral of a conservative vector field along a piecewise smooth path is independent of the path. That is, the value of the integral depends on the endpoints, not the actual path. 

Most people think that life is path independent—that they can see past their privileges and just go on with their lives. But everyone deserves to be passionate about something. We must not be path independent; we must be aware of the stories that are around us. Math is beautiful, and I only hope that seeing this beauty no longer becomes a privilege in this world, but a necessity.

Addressing a Burning Question

Ruby Laufer ’16 went into her senior thesis with a very precise aim: “I was trying to understand what advice Shakespeare would have given me as I was about to leave for college.” With guidance from her mentor, former Arts Head Debbie Pressman, Ruby explored the fates of the main female characters in Henry VI Part III, King Lear, and As You Like It. Her final presentation included her acting out a scene from each of the plays — an experience she calls “scary and very intense.” 

“Both [Henry VI’s] Margaret and [Lear’s] Cordelia were rigid,” she says. “Shakespeare ended their stories unhappily. Rosalind, however, was more adaptable. She had both masculine and feminine qualities (literally), and knew when to draw on each. She took the reins of her own destiny instead of playing right into it, and she was the only one who lived happily ever after.” 

She acknowledges seeing aspects of herself in all three women. “I had to look at myself and the ways I play into roles and stereotypes, but of course I learned from it. Rosalind survived because she was adaptable. That’s not a lesson I will easily forget.” 

Ruby put Shakespeare’s lesson to use a little sooner than she expected. A longtime competitive rider, she entered the animal science program at Cornell University after graduating from Packer. But, she felt it wasn’t right environment for her and made the difficult decision to leave. As her studies taught her to do, she adapted, and is spending the year studying at a farm school in Greece and pursuing the classics in Rome. She plans to return to the US to finish college. “Where and when that will happen, I do not know,” she says, “but I’m really enjoying the ride so far.”

Despite describing her senior thesis as “scary,” Ruby reflects on the experience with obvious enthusiasm. “It’s too easy to make excuses not to do something, graduate from a school you didn’t like, then end up with a job you didn’t want, without taking any risks in your life,” she says. “The most important lesson I’ve learned is that if something scares you, really scares you, you need to do it.”

Navigating Uncharted Territory 

Through Packer’s Independent Science Research Program, Will Merrill ’15 worked at NYU’s Morphology Lab, using brain imaging to investigate how the brain processes different forms of the same word (for example, “laugh” vs. “laughs”).

“My particular project dealt with common texting acronyms like LOL — in particular, whether such acronyms are morphologically derived from one of their component words (i.e., whether LOL relates to laugh in the same way that laughs relates laugh). Although his experiment in psycholinguistics was “far from conclusive,” the results he collected in a crowd-sourced online study supported this hypothesis.

Discussing complex topics with university professors and presenting his research was, he admits, “intimidating at first.” Today he credits the experience with “forcing me to develop my ability to speak confidently, both in public and in one-on-one conversations with authority figures.” 

Now a double major in linguistics and computer science at Yale University, Will spent last summer developing language-processing software that rates essays written by Spanish-language learners. He plans to pursue a PhD in computational linguistics.

He is very clear about the impact of his research experience. “I can’t thank my mentors (both from Packer and outside) enough for the exposure to linguistics and experience with research that the Science Research Program provided.”