2017 Agnes Nicolini Vincenti Award for an Outstanding Thesis in Romance Languages and Literatures Recipient
I need to get something off my chest. R.L.L. won’t like to hear it. When I started my Spanish major, it was entirely… utilitarian. Gasp! Yes. Hi, I’m Nolan, and I studied Spanish because I thought it would be useful. In this scenario, I imagine myself seated in a circle with others that started their Spanish majors just for utility.
I wanted to be a doctor, and still do. And around the time I declared, I worked at a McDonald’s with many Spanish-speaking immigrants. I wanted to be able to speak with customers and future patients.
Actually, if I’m being honest, I also wanted to leave U. of M. as a fluent speaker. Anyone reading this newsletter knows that that’s impossible. This truth hit me like un coche in my first college class, Intro. to Hispanic Literatures with Juanita Bernal. Oh my, was I nervous. My accent? Abysmal. Words incomprehensible.
But with Juanita’s guidance, I spoke. She built my courage and ability, and eventually, I became an independent speaker. Alongside ability, I also developed an appreciation for the study of language and culture for themselves, their revelation of deep personal and political nuances. I wanted more, so I studied abroad in Madrid.
(Side note: Look at that photo. That person embodies the textbook definition of un guiri, or Spaniards’ slang for pasty white, northern European tourist. See that face under guiri, n., R.A.E. dictionary.)
I was in Spain as the U.S. reeled from its bruising presidential election; I watched our primaries as an outsider. (Everyone asked about them, and, yes, they asked about what and whom you’re thinking they would, and in that tone.) But Spain was reeling, too. As our election loomed, Spain held a redo general election.
And whereas most of Europe and the U.S. are presently reeling from right-wing populism — Trump, Brexit, etc. — Spain is challenged by the left. Trumpism rejects globalization, immigration, and liberal values; Podemos, the Spanish populist party, rejects that rejection.
This oddity inspired my thesis, “Invasive Parties: Explaining the Absence of Right-Wing Populism in Spain.” In it, I explore the richness of populism with an empirical lens, and I explain Spain’s oddity by arguing that its center-right party is so atypically conservative that it preempted any right-wing populist party.
Professor Juli Highfill and I spent months unpacking election polls and party data. She mentored me through my most challenging academic effort to date, the Honors thesis. She and my second reader, Prof. Cristina Moreiras-Menor, made me a (quasi-)independent academic.
By this point, Spanish was no longer utility. Not a side dish. Not Brussel sprouts, or whatever you make yourself eat to get to what you really want. It’s filet mignon. This year, I’m starting a master in public health at U. of M. I want to understand health behaviors and disease — and their mechanics can be understood in the same way as, say, the cultural practices of indigenous Americans and contagious political views, which I studied in R.L.L.
R.L.L. developed one of my core values: communication. Communication has helped me make sense of the world, by studying it, experiencing it, writing and talking about it (in two languages!). It enriched me. I couldn’t have asked for more from my experience in the department.
I owe an amazing debt of gratitude to Prof. Highfill, Juanita Bernal, Prof. Morerias, and all the faculty and staff in R.L.L. that have guided me. And I’m honored to have received the Agnes Nicolini Vincenti Award for an Outstanding Thesis in R.L.L.