Award-winning student paper focuses on issues of race, disability

Presenter Molly Thompson '23, with recently approved self-designed major in Equity Studies, credits support from Saint Michael's faculty and staff mentors for achievement at virtual history honor society event

April 8, 2021
Mark Tarnacki
Staff Writer
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Molly Thompson ’23

Molly Thompson ‘23, a Saint Michael’s College sophomore who is working toward both a political science major and a newly approved self-designed and self-directed major in “Equity Studies,” on March 27 presented a paper for a virtual conference of the national history honor society Phi Alpha Beta, and won an award.

She presented her paper entitled “Race, Disability, and the Intersectional Struggle: The Humanizing Bonds of Solidarity,” at the (virtual) Phi Alpha Theta New England Regional Conference – Saint Anselm College (March 27, 2021). Phi Alpha Theta is the national honor society for history majors.

“As a disabled woman, this is really personal to me,” Thompson said regarding both her paper topic and self-designed major. “In the paper I explored how I am oppressed in some ways as a disabled woman and privileged in other ways as a white person, and what that means for my role in struggles for social justice. There’s a lot of focus on intersectionality.”

The achievement culminates a strong supportive collaboration among Saint Michael’s faculty and staff mentors who encouraged and helped Thompson with this project – notably, Professors Kathryn Dungy, history department chair, Katie Kirby of the philosophy faculty — for whose class Thompson originally wrote the paper — and Toni Messuri, assistant dean of Academic Affairs, for her ongoing support with accommodations in the presenter’s academic work.

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Professor Kathryn Dungy, History Department chair

Professor Dungy said that every year, the Phi Alpha Theta conference’s chairs and department advisers rank papers from each panel, and the six papers with most points receive an award. “Molly’s paper and presentation has the distinction of being a 2021 PAT Winning Paper!” she wrote to Saint Michael’s President Lorraine Sterritt, who also celebrated the achievement in her response.

“What a terrific accomplishment,” Sterritt wrote to Thompson’s mentors. “Molly is indeed a treasure, and we are honored to have her as a member of the Saint Michael’s family. Congratulations, Molly, and a huge thank you to her mentors.”

Messuri, Kirby and Dungy all were “present” during the virtual conference to witness Thompson’s presentation of her paper, which Thompson originally wrote last fall for Professor Kirby’s PH-358 “Power, Resistance, & Race” course. Dungy said she was introduced to Thompson this spring through Messuri, after Thompson enrolled in Dungy’s History 363 course titled “Race, Class, and Gender in the Atlantic World.”

“She wowed the audience and brought tears to the eyes of all her mentors,” Dungy said of Thompson’s Zoom presentation for the conference. “Katie, Toni and I, in our different capacities, have had the privilege of watching Molly grow intellectually and expressively. We are beyond thrilled at her accomplishments. She is an amazing human and we are all the better for having her in our world.”

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Toni Messuri

Dungy explained that Thompson “has some documented learning needs that are exacerbated by the pandemic realities we are currently facing, and Toni wanted to be sure both Molly and I were comfortable with the accommodations. During our initial discussion, Molly shared the paper she had written in Katie Kirby’s course, and coincidentally, I had just received a call for papers for the history honor society student conference so I suggested she submit her work. Long story short…Molly submitted the paper, it was accepted, and she worked diligently to prepare for the presentation and won an award!”

Thompson said she knew nothing about the Phi Alpha Theta conference until Dungy mentioned it. “She helped me prepare the paper for a spoken presentation and credit goes to her for getting me into this in the first place,” she said, further noting how this conference is hosted by the history honors society chapter at St. Anselm’s College in New Hampshire, “but is open to anyone to present papers, so it was entirely on Zoom.”

Thompson was one of many students presenting papers on or relating to history on March 27, and one of just six people among that large group who won recognition with an award. “The actual prize is a PAT scholarship key pin, but it represents a lot more to me,” said Thompson.

She explained the genesis of her presentation, which was based on her final paper for Kirby’s class last semester: “She asked us to choose an integration topic to tie into what we learned that semester, and I chose to write about how the 1977 504 Sit-In is a great example of solidarity against oppression because of how the Black Panthers united with disabled activists to support their cause,” Thompson said.

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Professor Katherine Kirby

As for her self-designed second major in Equity Studies, which the Dean’s office recently approved, she said she chose the topic “because I wanted to further my understanding of what I have learned in classes such as Professor Kirby’s class.”

Kirby, who also is Thompson’s adviser for the self-designed major, said she and Thompson have been working on this proposal for more than a year and so were excited to have it approved in early April. “Molly brought profound insight and compassion to her work in our ‘Power, Resistance, & Race’ course, culminating in this incredible, powerful paper,” Kirby said. “It’s an honor and a pleasure to work with her.”

Thompson said that “between racial justice courses, LGBT+ politics courses, and others I have taken, I have found that different areas of social justice are very interconnected, so I felt it was deserving of a major.”  She said she also has found, as a disabled woman, “that there are so few opportunities to learn about disability justice at St. Mike’s, so I have been advocating for change in that area. This major, with its concentration in disability studies, is part of that.”

As only a sophomore, she has not yet decided what career she will pursue after college, she said, “but I hope it will be something where I can keep learning more about my own history and advocating for my own rights. Maybe in a few decades I will be a professor, perhaps even at my alma mater!” In addition to her two majors, Thompson also is pursuing a minor in peace and justice. She is from Hartland, Vermont, which she describes as “a small, non-diverse town.”

“While I am not 100 percent sure what I want to do with my life, my experience at St. Mike’s is helping me explore my interests,” she said. “I am extremely grateful that I have mentors like Professors Dungy, Kirby and Dean Messuri supporting me through all of my academic and social justice pursuits. I don’t know what I would do without them!”

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