“At What Point Does the Heritage Disappear?”: Assimilation and Diasporic Identity in a Maronite Lebanese Community
Madeline Gambino, History and Religious Studies, 2014
Thesis Advisors: professors Rachel Goshgarian and Brett Hendrickson

Q: How and when did you select your advisor and the thesis committee members?
A: Because my thesis was in two departments, I had one advisor from each: Professor Goshgarian in History and Professor Hendrickson in Religious Studies. Professor Goshgarian was already my advisor for my major and focuses on the Middle East, and Professor Hendrickson had experience with interviewing and with diasporic religion. Usually for joint theses, the recommendation is to choose one primary advisor of these two and to work with them primarily on format, methodology, etc. so that you aren’t pulled in two different directions. Because of the nature of Religious Studies as such an interdisciplinary field, I did not have difficulties along these lines and so did not pick a primary advisor. I worked with both equally. As for my third reader, I asked Professor Vora in Anthropology/Sociology in the spring semester, although I had worked with her throughout the year to understand the diaspora theory on which my thesis relied.

Q: When did you start thinking about your thesis?
A: I had always planned on writing an honors thesis, but it wasn’t until junior year that I began to think about the topic specifically. I studied abroad the fall semester of my junior year in Morocco, where I conducted a research project on sub-Saharan African immigrants practicing Christianity in Rabat, the capital city. I interviewed students, pastors, and illegal immigrants—and I absolutely loved the experience. I loved interviewing, and I loved the relationship between immigration and religious identity and religious communities. I knew I wanted to continue looking into this type of research, and chose to work with the Lebanese community in downtown Easton so that I could continue relying on interviews.

Q: How did you start tackling your thesis project at the very beginning?
A: I started work over the summer before my senior year by reading about Lebanese history, the Maronite faith, and diasporic religion. It was very broad, and much of what I read I had to review once I had my interviews and knew how to focus my project. Throughout the process, I kept a document summarizing each article so that I could easily reference and remember what I had read.

Q: Did your advisors explain the structure of a thesis project to you?
A: More or less. I was fairly familiar with the structure, and it is pretty intuitive.

Q: Did you have to do a literature review? Had you ever done one before?
A: My first chapter (excluding the introduction) is a literature review, and it came to be over 25 pages. It was both probably the most difficult aspect of writing, and also the most helpful. I had written historiographies before in History classes. Still, the most difficult aspect was making it clear why my readers had to trek through 25 pages of theory with me before getting to read about the community itself. Making that narrative and your reasons clear can be tricky, but my advisors really helped me tackle this challenge.

Q: Do you remember receiving correspondence from the library about your honors thesis?
A: Yes. I met once with Lijuan to search for some secondary sources.

Q: What did you find most challenging about your thesis project?
A: Because I was using human subjects for the majority of my primary research, I had to receive Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval. Neither of my advisors in History or Religious Studies was aware of this requirement, because interviews are not often the primary source of information in their honors theses. It was not until I arrived back on campus in September and spoke to professors in Anthropology/Sociology that I became aware of this process. At that point, I had to write a proposal for IRB, submit it, and wait to hear back before I could start my interviews—and because I wanted to base my research off of what my interviewees told me, it was difficult for me to draft my proposal concretely. This whole process set me back a few months, and I did not start my interviews until the end of November. This was incredibly nerve-wracking to me. Still, it ended up helpful because I read the majority of the theory on diaspora fall semester, which allowed me to more easily analyze my interviews by the time I conducted the majority of them in January.

Q: What did you find most rewarding about your thesis project?
A: Everything. I absolutely loved the process. I loved interviewing members of the community and hearing their stories, I loved reading the theory, I loved figuring out how the theories fit with what they told me, I loved writing it, I loved presenting it. I wish I had two years to work on this project. But probably my favorite moment was the “aha!” moment when everything clicked into place and I realized exactly how I thought the community fit into the diaspora theories.

Q: What assistance did your advisor/department offer you throughout the course of the year?
A: Compared to many thesis students, I met infrequently with my advisors. Because my topic was somewhat outside the research interests of all three of them, I went to each for advice on different aspects—Professor Goshgarian for books and research on Lebanon, the Maronite Church, and the community itself; Professor Hendrickson for diasporic religion and interviewing; and Professor Vora on the theory. They all helped me piece it together, and Professor Hendrickson and Professor Goshgarian particularly helped me with revisions later in spring semester. They were incredibly supportive, but also were so wonderful about giving me the space to figure out what I wanted to say.

Q: Did you meet with librarians in the course of conducting your research? How many times and at what stages of your research?
A: I met only once with Lijuan early in fall semester. There isn’t a ton of research about Maronite Catholics in the United States or about Lebanese Maronite immigrants to the United States, and I already had most of my secondary research about Maronites in Lebanon from Professor Goshgarian. The remainder of my research was mostly theoretical, and that I also received from professors Hendrickson and Vora.

Q: What other kind of support did you rely on throughout the year to accomplish your thesis (IT, parents, friends, etc.)?
A: My parents are both college professors and were incredibly helpful when I wanted to bounce ideas off of them. My roommates and friends were similarly helpful. Of course, I could not have completed this project without the community members themselves welcoming me and passing on my name to others who might be interested in speaking with me.

Q: Were you able to get access to all of the research materials you wanted for your project?
A: Yes. I wish I had more time to interview, but otherwise yes.

Q: Would you do anything differently if you went through the process again?
A: I would have tried to submit my IRB earlier to begin interviews earlier.

Q: What advice would you offer other honors thesis students, especially in your department?
A: Again, for anyone hoping to work with human subjects through interviewing, IRB approval is essential. Otherwise, don’t be afraid to work with theory, and don’t be afraid to trek out on your own and see what you can find instead of relying on your advisors entirely. It will be rewarding if you reach conclusions on your own, even if you need to tweak or alter them along the way. Interviews and oral histories are fascinating, rewarding, and fun, and a great way to say something new in the field. Most importantly, pick a topic you love. Every time I sat down to work on my thesis, I was more excited and more in love with the subject than I had been the previous time. I can’t imagine working on this for a full year without feeling this passionate about it.