Personal Journey Inspires Research

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Nancy Joseph 07/01/2013 July 2013 Perspectives

When Merzamie (Mimi) Sison Cagaitan (BA, English, Comparative History of Ideas, ’13) led a two-credit course about the phenomenon of international marriage migration (the so-called “mail-order bride” industry), she opened up a little-known world to her fellow students. It’s a world that Cagaitan herself knows well. She’d researched the subject for nearly a year for her Comparative History of Ideas (CHID) honors thesis, and lived in that world for more than half her life.

Cagaitan, recently named 2013 A&S Dean’s Medalist in the Humanities, was born in the Philippines. Her family moved to Puyallup, Washington when Cagaitan’s mother, seeking a better life for her children, married an American man she had known only through correspondence and short visits. The marriage didn’t last, but the family stayed in the states.

"Putting myself in the role of community builder and not just community joiner has really helped me understand the difference between actively claiming an education versus merely receiving one," says Mimi Cagaitan.

Cagaitan was 11 years old when the family left the Philippines. In the U.S., struggling to learn a new language and culture, books became her constant companion. She outread her grade school classmates to such a degree that the school had to create new categories in its literacy program, which awarded points for reading. “By the sixth grade, they had to make a 1000-point club just for me,” she says.

Her love affair with literature continued at the UW, where she majored in English. She added a CHID major after participating in a CHID study abroad program in the Philippines during her junior year. The program focused on education, particularly how colonialism impacted the Philippines’ education system. “That study abroad program was an opportunity I needed to grab,” says Cagaitan.

Upon her return to campus, Cagaitan began working on her senior honors thesis in English, which explored violence against women in motion—women who move or are moved—as depicted in literature. Through novels like Toni Morrison’s A Mercy and Chang-Rae Lee’s A Gesture Life, she critically analyzed the experiences of female characters wounded by displacement and then transformed.

While the connection with her own mother’s experience was suggested in her English honors thesis, it was frontand-center in the CHID honors thesis that followed. The thesis contested the victim discourse surrounding Filipino mail-order brides as the ultimate western male fantasy.

“It’s really helped me think about my mom’s experience and the things she bravely and sometimes naively jumped into and how fortunate we were that everything has worked together for the good,” says Cagaitan. “There’s a lot of victim discourse when you read about mail-order brides. I didn’t want my understanding of my mother’s experience to be that she was a victim. While there were definitely trying times, I know she fights every day not to be defined by the negative aspects of her experience. Focusing my research on women empowerment, even in difficult situations, is my way of joining her in this fight. The strategic dispensation of strength and sacrifice—this is what I wanted to highlight.” Cagaitan recently presented her research at Harvard University’s National Collegiate Research Conference—one of a handful of humanists at the science and technology-dominated conference.

At the encouragement of mentor Erin Clowes, CHID lecturer and program assistant, Cagaitan created a CHID Focus Group around her thesis topic as a way of sharing her work with others. Focus groups are two-credit discussion-based courses designed and facilitated by CHID students for their peers.

Cagaitan's advertisement for her Focus Group course.

“I’ve studied a lot of dark and gloomy topics, and I’ve often felt very alone in my research,” says Cagaitan. “I really wanted to share it with people and discuss it.” At the start of the quarter, Cagaitan discovered that some focus group students were business and science majors with little interest in the topic and no familiarity with the language of the discipline. They simply wanted a two-credit course to fill out their schedules. But Cagaitan quickly won them over. “The mix of students made it both difficult and exciting,” she says. “I established close relationships with them. The conversations we had were phenomenal and often continued beyond the two-hour class period.”

For most of the quarter, Cagaitan did not reveal her personal connection to the course material. But in the end, she not only shared her story but invited her mother to speak to the class. “That was the capstone moment,” says Cagaitan. “I didn't realize this going into it, but all quarter I had essentially been setting the stage for my mother to come and tell her own story. It was very important to me that my students understand the industry enough to be able to contextualize her story and appreciate it for its unqiueness. After class, a couple of students told me that my mom’s story is the most inspirational story they’d ever heard.”

The focus group was one of Cagaitan’s many leadership roles at the UW. She served as a Freshman Interest Group peer instructor for three years, helping freshmen navigate their first quarter on campus. She was a resident adviser in two residence halls—McMahon and Haggett Hall—where she saw herself as “an older sibling” to younger students. She was a founding member of Seattle Against Slavery UW, a student adjunct to Seattle Against Slavery, an anti-humantrafficking
nonprofit. She was president of the UW chapter of the Sigma Tau Delta Society, an English honor society. And she was the recipient of numerous scholarships.

“On first encounter with such an obviously accomplished student, the skeptical mind might wonder if there is any resume-padding going on, but the simple fact is that Mimi truly is that talented and energetic,” says Mel Wensel, director of academic services in the Department of English. “That she finds none of her achievements as impressive as we do, and that she has occasionally been troubled by self doubt, simply underscores the heart at the center of all her undertakings.“

Cagaitan envisions a career in academia as a professor of English. She plans to attend graduate school next year—she’s already been accepted to several schools—but first she’s spending a year teaching English in South Korea through a Fulbright award. (Read about her experiences on her Fulbright blog.) 

“The UW was the best place for me,” Cagaitan says, thinking back on all that she accomplished. “I can’t even imagine how things would have worked out if I’d gone elsewhere. Putting myself in the role of community builder and not just community joiner has really helped me understand the difference between actively claiming an education versus merely receiving one. Moving forward, I know that the UW will have an indelible impact on future journeys I will take.”

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