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History Students Earn Top Honors at Phi Alpha Theta Regional Conference
May 7, 2012
In what is fast becoming an annual tradition, graduate students from California State University, Stanislaus, last month earned top honors at the Phi Alpha Theta History Honor Society’s Northern California Regional Conference, winning first and third prize for their research papers.

Around 40 students from nine colleges and universities presented papers of original historical research during the conference, held this year at Santa Clara University, with awards going to the top three papers in both the undergraduate and graduate categories. Phi Alpha Theta was established in 1921 and has more than 350,000 members in 860 local chapters.

CSU Stanislaus student Samantha M. Williams took the top prize at the conference with a paper entitled “Race, Politics, and Military Filibusters: Southern Attempts at Expansion in Antebellum America.” Williams will be invited to present her paper at the upcoming meeting of the American Historical Society’s Pacific Coast Branch.

Military filibusters were attempts by typically southern U.S. citizens to annex territory from the Caribbean and Central America to the United States following the Civil War. Williams argues that the surge in these efforts was likely fueled by the desire to protect slavery and renew the influence of slave states, but also by the proliferation of scientific racism, which asserted the superiority of “Anglo-Saxons” over allegedly inferior races.

“I am fascinated by American politics and society in the 1850s, and after coming across the term ‘military filibuster’ during a separate research project, I decided to investigate these incidents further,” Williams said. “In the process, I discovered a connection between military filibusters, Southern politics and American views on race.”

Williams wrote her paper as part of an individual study project with Professor Bret Carroll, chair of the CSU Stanislaus history department.

“Winning at the Phi Theta Alpha conference was an honor, especially because there were so many talented students from CSU Stanislaus who participated as well,” Williams said. “Presenting a paper at the conference was also a great opportunity to work closely with a faculty mentor and conduct in-depth research on a topic of my choosing.”

Another CSU Stanislaus student, Joel Virgen, was awarded third place for his paper, “Responsibility and Identity: Vaclav Havel and Totalitarian Morality.”

The paper uses Havel’s plays, letters and speeches to examine how the Czechoslovakian dissident — and later president — actually hindered the fight against the country’s then-communist regime with his moral attack on totalitarianism. Virgen said Havel’s ideology, mistakenly branded as philosophical, was based more on his own personal feelings as an outsider.

Over the past five years, CSU Stanislaus students have claimed nine of the 15 total graduate awards presented by Phi Alpha Theta in the Northern California region, which includes about a dozen colleges and universities, including several within the CSU system. Phi Alpha Theta faculty advisor and history professor Philip Garone said that, because of these successes, the CSU Stanislaus master’s program in history is widely recognized within the Phi Alpha Theta organization as one of the best M.A. programs in Northern California.

Many of CSU Stanislaus’ history graduate students also earned their bachelor’s degree here, Garone said, and several now teach history at community colleges throughout the region; others have advanced to Ph.D. programs in history or gone on to earn a law degree.

“This level of success points clearly to the quality of our students and to the quality of our history program,” Garone said, “the strength of which lies in the combination of rigorous graduate seminars and individual study courses that all history professors offer.”

Also participating in the conference were CSU Stanislaus graduate students John E. Davis, Isaac William Farhadian and Alexandra K. Vicknair, as well as undergraduate student Andrew Nolan.
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