A woman in front of a poster talking with two other women
Kavita Gawrinauth ’24 discussing her poster presentation with conference attendees

Meet two students who dived into research and successfully presented on their topics: Chinese “comfort women” of World War II and the depiction of the melancholy Portuguese “saudade” in Spanish literature.

Little did Ignacio Torres, PhD, an assistant professor in the Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures, anticipate that presentations at the Northeast Modern Language Association (NeMLA) annual conference by his students, Kavita Gawrinauth ’24 and Kaitlyn Goncalves ’24, would be such hits with attendees.

“Their presentations received more attention than mine did,” said Dr. Torres. “I was with them at the beginning and helped them to practice their presentations. But soon, they attracted constant attention from the public.”

It Started as a Classroom Exercise

Dr. Torres’ spring semester course, Spain Today, covered topics such as contemporary cinema, literature and nationalism. But he also dedicated class time for students to choose their own topics of interest, then prepare and submit research abstracts to NeMLA.

“With the help of AI, we practiced how to create prompts to produce a satisfactory abstract,” he explained. “We worked on editing those abstracts to be ready for submission—and every student in the class sent in their proposals. Several students’ proposals were selected to present at the conference.”

For Dr. Torres’ students, the opportunity to present at a major conference was a win-win in terms of résumé building and crafting graduate school or job applications. “You need to convince. You need ideas, you need examples, you need to show your potential. And the best indicator for future results is always your past work,” he said.

Showcasing a Refuge for Chinese Comfort Women and Children

Gawrinauth, a history major, elected to showcase her advanced research on how Minnie Vautrin, an American missionary and head of Ginling College in Nanjing, China, during the 1937–1938 Nanjing Massacre, made the college a refuge for women and children escaping Japanese brutality. Many of these women, according to Gawrinauth, were thought to be former comfort women—women who had been forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese.

It’s a topic that invites parallels to contemporary sex trafficking. “Understanding these past atrocities can shed light on the enduring patterns of abuse, exploitation and resilience. By learning from history, we can better advocate for and protect victims of sex trafficking today,” Gawrinauth insisted.

History professor Maria Cristina Zaccarini, PhD’s Gender in Modern China course “ignited my passion to learn more about these resilient women and share their stories with others,” Gawrinauth recalled.

For Gawrinauth, presenting her research at the NeMLA conference “not only allowed me to share my findings, but also served as a valuable learning opportunity to enhance my speaking skills.”

In addition to her NeMLA poster presentation, her paper, “Bound by Love: Uncovering Familial Love and Sisterhood Among Chinese Comfort Women During WWII,” received two other accolades: It was published in the Fall 2023 edition of Clio’s Scroll—The Berkeley Undergraduate History Journal and earned her the undergraduate New York Conference on Asian Studies Marleigh Grayer Ryan College Student Writing Prize.

Exploring the Portuguese Tradition of the “Melancholy Portuguese” in Spanish Literature

Goncalves’ presentation was “related to things we talked about in class, and that appealed to her Portuguese cultural heritage,” Dr. Torres reported. “She is an accomplished student who explored how Portuguese people were depicted in Spanish literature.”

Her focus was on the portrayal of the melancholic Portuguese—a characterization closely linked to Portuguese saudade, an emotional, nostalgic—and often bittersweet and sorrowful—longing for the past.

Miguel de Cervantes’ final, masterful novel, The Trials of Persiles and Sigismunda: A Northern Story, recounts the adventures of lovers’ two-year journey to Rome. Along the way, they encountered a Portuguese man who was melancholic because he’d canceled his marriage at the last minute as he said he was married to God.

Goncalves, according to Dr. Torres, connected Cervantes’ classic tale to Portuguese fado—a traditional music genre that embodies the melancholy, soulful yearning known as saudade.

A Validating Experience

For both students, Dr. Torres said, “the experience talks about their excellence, initiative, motivation, professionalism and healthy ambition. It mainly shows that they can be successful in producing results.”

His students’ posters are displayed in Alumnae Hall, for all to see and enjoy.

As for the students, now alumnae, both will continue to pursue their master’s degrees in education at the Adelphi University School of Education in the Ruth S. Ammon College of Education and Health Sciences.

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