NSF funding allows students to travel abroad

By David Barnstone

The anthropology department at the University of Massachusetts recently received $249,861 from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to support 15 students conducting field research throughout Europe over the next three years.


This is the second round of federal funding for the Cultural Heritage in European Societies and Spaces (CHESS) program at UMass, which began in 2010. A partnership with the University of Barcelona in Spain allows both undergraduate and graduate students to pursue independent research projects with the support of experts in European anthropology.

UMass students have been doing fieldwork in Europe since the 1970s. The new grant allows the department to cover the living and working expenses of students working in the field and provide them with a variety of supportive resources.

“The CHESS grant has been a way for us to bring it into [the] 21st century by creating stronger, ongoing, international, collaborative partnerships with European universities and to use the new instructional and communication technologies to support students through the loneliness and the challenges of independent field research,” said Dr. Krista Harper, associate professor of cultural anthropology and director of the European Field Studies Program.

Five students are selected each year to participate in the program. Upon acceptance of their research proposal, students enroll in a methodological course in which they design their research projects and develop a formal grant proposal as if they were applying for NSF funding. In the spring, they spend their semester at their chosen field site collecting data. The following fall, they come back to UMass to take a third course in which they write up their results and prepare them for publication.

“You get experience with a lot of support because there are other people doing fieldwork at the same time.,” said Justin Helepololei, a 2011-2012 CHESS participant who is finishing his master’s thesis now and will continue his doctoral training at UMass. “You’ve got a prep course before to help you plan it and then a course afterwards to help you process.”

Helepololei spent his semester abroad studying social protests and occupations, known as “squatting” in Spain. By going to events and talking to the people involved in demonstrations, he discovered that these “neighborhood-based mobilizations” have been going on for years.

“So what was kind of portrayed by the media as a new thing that disgruntled young people are doing actually had a much longer history,” he said.

While Helepololei was studying squatting movements in Spain, Christa Burdick was doing her fieldwork in Strasbourg, a city in eastern France near the German border. Burdick, who is training to be a linguistic anthropologist, researched how marketers are using a particular dialect in that region to make their advertisements more attractive to tourists. The data she collected became the basis for her master’s thesis, which she completed in May.

Burdick knew she wanted to do fieldwork in Europe when she graduated from a small liberal arts college in Iowa. She said the CHESS program was part of the reason she applied to UMass for her graduate studies.

“I was able to go and do research before my dissertation, which will hopefully make my dissertation proposal more attractive to funders,” Burdick said.

This summer, Jenny Folsom returned to UMass after a 7-month stay at the Royal Museum of Central Africa in Belgium. Her research focused on how the museum represents Belgium’s history of African colonialism. Folsom poured over the museum’s collection of letters written by former colonists and interviewed a group of colonists, now in their 80s and 90s, that still meet at the museum.

Folsom came to the CHESS program from the sociology department after taking a research methods course in the anthropology department with Harper. She is using the research she conducted at her field site to prepare her doctoral dissertation. The experience also allowed her to enhance her French language skills.

“I had never before experienced immersion,” she said. “I did interviews in French, focus groups. I actually worked a bit as a translator for the museum.”

The three graduate students said that having this field research experience early in their careers is a rare and valuable opportunity. They also said the CHESS program helped them connect with researchers in Barcelona and their field sites.

“While I was in Belgium, I made a ton of contacts with different organizations and individuals who could host me during my next stint of research in that region,” Folsom said.

Helepololei added that his master’s fieldwork gave him an idea of what would be feasible for his future dissertation.

The program is encouraging any undergraduates interested in fieldwork to apply in April for the 2014-2015 research stream. Harper said that past undergraduates have used their field research through the CHESS program as a basis for their senior theses.

Each year of the program, students conduct research that relates to an overarching theme. In 2010-2013, the research streams were based on the work already being done by UMass students and faculty. In the next three years, Harper said the streams will be more closely related to the work being done by their colleagues at the University of Barcelona. This year’s theme is “Crisis, Culture and Heritage.” The 2014-2015 theme will be “Sustainable Heritage, Communities and Economies” and the 2015-2016 theme will be “Social Justice and Changing Forms of Value.”

“Those themes allows us to create a common mission even as people are doing research in five different countries and coming together in Spain to have this shared experience,” Harper said.

This year, students will be conducting field research in the United Kingdom, Iceland, Russia, Turkey, Spain, Portugal and Italy. In addition to their individual research projects, they will participate in workshops at the University of Barcelona.

“Everybody who goes to Barcelona falls in love with the city,” said Harper. “We couldn’t be luckier to have partners at a university that is right in the center of one of the most vibrant cities in Europe.”


David Barnstone can be reached at [email protected]