This year marked the launch of the Area and International Studies Undergraduate Paper Awards, in which the Institute for Regional and International Studies announced that participating area studies centers would be awarding $1,000 to the best papers written by an undergraduate which focused on their respective world regions. This year’s African Studies award was granted to African Studies certificate student Danielle Schmitz for her paper, The Mobutu Legacy: Identity formation in the Congo.
Danielle graduated this year, receiving degrees in Political Science and International Studies and certificates in both Middle Eastern and African Studies. She wrote this particular paper for a class she took last semester with former Senator Russ Feingold, International Studies 601: Negotiating Peace in the Great Lakes Region of Africa.
“It was probably my favorite class I’ve taken in my four years of college,” Danielle said, “Senator Feingold clearly has a lot of experience in this field and a lot of great stories to tell.”
Beyond the expertise of her professor, Danielle also found the seminar-style layout of the classroom to be extremely beneficial. It allowed the classroom to become a collaborative space, she recalled, where students could not only dive deeply into the discussion topics and readings assigned each week but also contribute their personal knowledge and ideas to these conversations. This environment allowed Danielle and her classmates to gain a robust, comprehensive knowledge base about the Great Lakes region over the course of the semester.
The final requirement for Senator Feingold’s course was a research paper on a topic of their choosing. Danielle elected to write about former President Mobutu of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, specifically in the context of national identity. She reflected on Mobutu’s early attempts to unify the country under a single, “Congolese” identity and the divisiveness he later fostered between ethnic groups once he began to lose political power, weighing the two legacies in an attempt to determine which has more strongly influenced the realities of ethnic identity in the Congo. In her paper, Danielle navigated this extremely complicated, controversial topic with grace, winning her both the undergraduate paper prize and the praise of African Studies faculty and staff.
“The selection committee was particularly impressed,” said Aleia McCord, Associate Director of African Studies, “with the ambitious scope of [her] piece and [her] ability to successfully integrate disparate references so elegantly.”
This academic and literary skill will surely benefit Danielle as she looks towards her future after UW-Madison. She is currently looking for employment in Washington, D.C., particularly research assistant positions, and is excited to get started on her career. The African Studies Program wishes her the best of luck on her journey and is excited to see where it takes her.
Published by Rebecca Hanks.