my capstone experience

Jessica McLavey '10, an English major from Merrimack, N.H., discusses her Capstone that focused on the influence literature can have on a person's development and personal philosophy. The Capstone project, which involves extensive research and presentation, is the culmination of each student's academic experience.

While at Colby-Sawyer, McLavey was an active member of the equestrian team, Alpha Chi, and the NCAA Student-Athlete Advisory Committee. After graduation, McLavey moved to Colorado to work and live on a guest ranch and now looks forward to starting at a Wyoming ranch in the spring. She keeps her Colby-Sawyer connection and her English major skills strong by writing for College Communications and reading submissions for Teen Ink magazine, an educational nonprofit publication of The Young Authors Foundation based in Newton, Mass.

Describe your Capstone project and why you chose to focus on this subject.

My Capstone analyzed the relationship between Christopher McCandless, the subject of Jon Krakauer's book Into the Wild, and literature. I studied several of the works McCandless brought on his cross-country journey and concluded that they had great influence on his personal philosophy.

I also tied my topic to Reader-Response Theory, which states that the interpretive work a reader does while reading a book gives the text significance. Readers of all ages and experience project their hopes, fears and beliefs onto a text to make reading a more personal, powerful experience. I chose the topic because I found I was unable to stop referencing and rereading Into the Wild. I was intrigued by the fact that McCandless's story had the same effect on me that his favorite books, like The Call of the Wild and War and Peace, had on him.

What research did you conduct for this project?

I read a lot of the books that McCandless read during his lifetime and took with him on his journey across the United States to Alaska. These books gave me a lot of insight, as they were filled with themes and passages that would have appealed to McCandless. I was able to get past the information provided by Krakauer in Into the Wild on McCandless and his books and analyze the relationship on a deeper level. I also read a lot of critical material on texts like The Call of the Wild, Walden, War and Peace and Family Happiness.

I ended my research with looking into Reader-Response Theory, which was not only interesting and helpful in making my argument for McCandless's relationship with literature, but also helpful in understanding my own reading processes.

What did you learn through your Capstone project, and in what ways is it a culmination of your learning experience at Colby-Sawyer?

While being an English major has taught me the importance of collaboration and discussion, my Capstone required a lot of focus and individual effort. My professors were always there to give me advice if needed, but this project was truly all about me putting in the effort and coming up with something original and interesting. As far as my topic goes, I learned a lot about how powerful books can be in anyone's life, including my own. My topic encouraged me to look at how I relate to literature, and how my own interpretive processes allowed me to find meaning in Into the Wild.

What was most fun and rewarding for you in the process of creating your Capstone?

I loved that I was able to research and write about something that mattered to me. While I have written several papers over the last four years on interesting topics, this was my chance to pursue a research topic that held significance in my own life. It's also rewarding to have people read my Capstone and walk away thinking, “I didn't know that about myself and the reading process.”

What did you find most challenging and difficult?

The English Capstone is all about being motivated and a self-starter. While we started researching a bit during first semester, it's really up to you to get yourself writing on a regular basis during second semester. I found it difficult in the beginning of the term to get the ball rolling. There were days when I would only be able to write two coherent sentences in a span of two hours, and then there were nights when I holed up and wrote until the librarians asked me to leave at closing time. Writing my Capstone was all about finding my groove and setting aside the time to focus on my topic.

What do you hope will be the lasting value of your Capstone project, both for you and others?

I will always be glad that I looked at a topic that meant something to me. If I had chosen a more traditional topic, or one that would have been easier to research, it would have defeated the entire purpose of writing a Capstone; this project is all about saying something new and looking into a subject that you are enthusiastic about. When you are excited about something, it's contagious. I'm sure I'll be thinking about my topic for quite some time to come, and I hope it inspires the people who read it to take a look at their own relationship with literature.

How would you summarize your Colby-Sawyer experience? What do you most appreciate as you prepare to graduate that you didn't know when you arrived?

My Colby-Sawyer experience was unique and special. I have been able to form strong relationships with my peers and professors, perhaps stronger than I would have been able to if I had gone to a bigger school. People at Colby-Sawyer actually take the time to get to know you. When I arrived here, I felt like a small college might be a little bit suffocating. Now I realize it was the perfect size; I can always find help when I need it, and I was able to learn more about myself and my peers through small classes.

I feel I am fully prepared to enter the world as a mature, well-rounded college graduate. Colby-Sawyer has provided me with an education and experiences that will allow me to successfully pursue any number of goals in the future.