Late last month, this year’s Near-Mitra scholars held virtual salons, which consisted of a presentation summarizing each scholar’s research followed by a Q&A session. Each of the student scholars was mentored by faculty members who received grants from the Chen Lin Family Endowment. The salons were well-attended, averaging 35 people for each talk and 250 overall.
Salons were held on three separate days, starting on March 22 with Caden Lin’s presentation on the International Monetary Fund’s role in destabilizing Sierra Leone’s economy, which eventually led to civil war. Lin, mentored by speech and debate chair Jenny Achten and upper school librarian Meredith Cranston, began with Sierra Leone’s independence from Britain in 1961. When the country’s initial economic strength had begun to wane, the IMF offered aid, initially with promising results. However, Lin pointed out, IMF also devalued Sierra Leone’s currency and made its exports cheaper, leading to economic disaster over the next two decades.
Three more salons were held on March 24, the first of which featured Michelle Liu, who analyzed American painter Mary Cassatt’s use of techniques inspired by Japanese woodblock prints, a style known as ukiyo-e. Liu, whose mentors were Cranston and upper school history teacher Donna Gilbert, noted Cassatt’s affinity for mother-and-child themes, pointing out the similarities of her renderings of children and those of Japanese woodblock artist Kitagawa Utamaro. Liu also highlighted Cassatt’s use of domestic scenes, which reflected prevailing viewpoints on gender in the late 19th century.
Senior Dawson Chen, mentored by Cranston and upper school history teacher Katy Rees, analyzed the films of documentarian Pare Lorentz and their impact on documentary filmmaking. Famously known as “FDR’s filmmaker,” Lorentz made several films to promote then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Chen demonstrated how in works such as “The Plow that Broke the Plains,” Lorentz documented the over-farming that eventually led to the Dust Bowl, powerfully advocating for the restoration of the land.
Under the mentorship of upper school history teacher Chris Gatto and library director Lauri Vaughan, Riyaa Randhawa’s presentation covered the role teachers played in establishing the public health system during the American occupation of the Philippines. Filipino students, Randhawa explained, had a unique relationship to the teachers in the American schools they were required to attend, which led to greater knowledge of public health measures. Nevertheless, schools often enforced racial hierarchies by teaching students that their culture and customs were inferior, and education was designed to only qualify them for low-level jobs.
The final group of salons took place on March 28, beginning with Nicole Tian’s presentation on the Brandeis Brief’s influence on law practice and lawmaking in the progressive era, and how it furthered the idea that legal decisions should consider their societal impact. Tian also connected the brief to widely held beliefs about women at the time, particularly that women were the virtuous and moral center of the American family, while men provided economic stability. Lawyer Louis Brandeis successfully argued in Muller v. Oregon that 10-hour workdays for laundry women threatened the nation’s moral character. Tian conducted her research with the mentorship of upper school history teacher Carol Green and upper school librarian Amy Pelman.
Alina Yuan, mentored by Vaughan and upper school English teacher Beth Wahl, covered the work of Japanese author Osamu Dazai, whose work was a cornerstone of the buraiha (“decadent school”) literary movement that became popular in post-World War II Japan. Following the shock and horror of the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the subsequent societal transformation that took place due to heavy American influence, Dazai depicted the struggle of adjusting to post-war Japanese society Dazai also became admired for his decadent lifestyle, another sign of shifting cultural attitudes.
Finally, William Zhao, whose mentors were Pelman and upper school history teacher Byron Stevens, compared and contrasted the development of liberal democracies in Spain and Portugal in the 20th century. The fall of Spain’s authoritarian Francoist regime and the subsequent transition to democracy, Zhao said, was the result of a top-down process by which opposition and reformist forces in the government dismantled the Francoist political infrastructure. Portugal, by contrast, experienced a coup d’etat by a military fed up with prime minister Antonio Salazar’s insistence on maintaining colonial operations in several African nations.