The communication honors thesis project of Mara Lorin ’21 focused on restaurants and gentrification in Los Angeles.
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Communication undergraduates pursue deeper research through honors program

Through middle school and high school, communication major Jessie Faltinsky was struck by just how disconnected her school sex-education curriculum was from students’ real concerns and needs. Then, when she began volunteering in sex education program for middle-school girls as a peer educator through the campus club Women and Youth Supporting Each Other (WYSE), she realized that a better, more student-centered sex education was possible.

“Sex ed is really in its infancy,” she said. “These programs emphasize sexual risk and danger and perpetuate unequal gender relations — which can increase female victimization and teen pregnancy, especially for low-income girls and women.”

Faltinsky explored this idea for a class paper in her sophomore year at USC Annenberg, but she recalls her teaching assistant telling her that her idea actually sounded more like a master’s thesis proposal than just a paper. Then, before her senior year, Faltinsky received an email inviting her to apply for the communication honors program, which gives outstanding communication seniors the opportunity to engage in a yearlong research project culminating in a thesis presentation.

She jumped at the chance and became one of the eight communication students who completed the honors program for the 2020-21 academic year.

Mike Ananny, associate professor of communication and director of the honors program for the past two years, said that Faltinsky’s project was an example of how a student turned her personal experiences and observations — in Faltinsky’s case, as a sexual health counselor — into meaningful research in the communication discipline.

“These are students who have really had their curiosity piqued at some point in their undergraduate careers,” Ananny said. “They’ve taken a class and thought, ‘That's a subject I really want to spend more time on.’ Or they wrote a paper or a final project that they saw as the beginning, but not the endpoint of their inquiry. They all arrive to the honors program with a desire to go deeper on some topic.”

In the Fall semester, honors program students take a research methods class with Ananny, where they hone their research questions and learn about ways to engage in more thorough primary research than is typically required for undergraduate courses.

“I treat it like a workshop,” Ananny said. “They can practice articulating their research question, narrowing it, deciding what their methods are going to be, and surveying the academic literature.”

By the end of the Fall semester, the students produce a thesis proposal. Then they spend Spring semester conducting research and preparing a presentation on their findings. During that Spring semester, each honors program student has the help and guidance of a faculty adviser.

Erica Hur, also a communication major in the honors program, focused her thesis on researching two on-campus news organizations — the Daily Trojan and Annenberg Media — and analyzing the differences in their journalistic independence. “I was really interested in student journalism, and I think the most unique part about the honors program was that it gave me the space to fulfill my intellectual curiosity on this topic,” said Hur, who graduated in May and will be attending the USC Gould School of Law in the Fall. “The honors program was able to really help me fill in those gaps, allowing me to pursue the research that I was really interested in.”

Her adviser, School of Journalism Director Gordon Stables, noted that Erica’s experience in leadership roles at both the Daily Trojan and Annenberg Media gave her keen insights into how newsrooms work. “Her findings were thought-provoking and an incredibly valuable resource for us all as we look to the future of journalism education,” Stables said.

Mara Lorin focused her project on helping Los Angeles restaurants avoid contributing to gentrification. “After communicating with tons of restaurant owners, I discovered that mediating their role in a new neighborhood that’s still affordable for them was challenging,” said Lorin, who also graduated in May. “Many of them grappled with how to be successful while combating their role in gentrification.”

Lorin credits her faculty adviser, Associate Professor of Communication Taj Frazier, for helping her contextualize her work. “Mara is very self-motivated and takes seriously the task and joys of exploring Los Angeles' complex histories and current-day dynamics of power, inequity, and struggle,” Frazier said. “Her final project didn't just offer analysis, it solidified contact and interaction between different stakeholders, as well as providing a guidebook that hopefully will play a role in helping to facilitate more exchanges and solidarity between these groups.”

Even though the program is structured to mirror the work of graduate students, it teaches students skills that have broader applications outside of academia. “Even if students don’t have any interest in graduate school, the program is still something you can talk about in internship and job interviews for after they graduate,” Ananny added. “When I speak to potential employers, they want people who can work independently and think critically — and these projects demonstrate those qualities.”

Robin Stevens, who advised Faltinsky on her project, said that the student's work would have been impressive even for a master’s thesis. “Jessie's rigorous study — on a subject that is sadly taboo in the United States — was very impactful,” said Stevens, associate professor of communication. “I look forward to seeing where she goes next.”

Faltinsky, who is currently searching for her first post-college job, says that she hopes to continue working on the issues of youth sexual education and health that she explored in the honors program. “Not everybody gets the chance to do this kind of in-depth thesis project as an undergrad,” she said. “I’m just super grateful for being a comm student at Annenberg.”

Students interested in the honors program can check out this website and contact their academic advisors for more information.