Honors students get creative with final thesis projects

Austin senior Avery Lill completed her honors thesis, “Around the Color Wheel,” this month. The children’s book tells the story of a girl who goes on an adventure to find the world’s missing colors. Photo credit: Charlene Lee

It’s the time of year again when honors students must present and defend their theses. Thesis papers have the reputation of thick stacks of paper, academic research and heavy eyelids. However, that isn’t always the case. An honors thesis at Baylor can be about anything the student takes an interest in, even if it is outside his or her area of study. The thesis doesn’t even have to be on paper. In fact, honors and University Scholars students are encouraged to choose thesis topics that will broaden their thinking, instead of boxing themselves into topics related to their majors.

Austin senior Avery Lill chose to write her thesis in the form of a children’s book with subtle philosophical themes, and Dallas senior Andy Nichols wrote the book for an onstage musical, complete with a script and lyrics. Although neither studies children’s literature or musical theater, the two chose subjects that excited their minds and piqued their interest.

Both students were mentored by Sarah Jane Murray, an associate professor of great texts and creative writing who’s done it all, from screenwriting to translating medieval literature. Murray uses her skills across multiple disciplines to advise students in telling meaningful stories. She is now mentoring several students for the upcoming year, as she has become a popular mentor for her unique interdisciplinary style.

Nichols originally began a thesis in accounting, his major area of study. His project was cut short, however, when his mentor moved away unexpectedly. Nichols had to decide whether to continue with a thesis he didn’t feel passionate about or move on to a new one he found interest in.

He chose the latter and picked up his old dream of writing the book for a musical. His musical theater history inspired him to finish a project he had started in high school and create a musical of his own. The switch has served as a complement to his accounting work, giving him an occasional break from numbers and calculations.

“I’m not always in the right place to be writing creatively,” Nichols said. “I’m also not always in the right place to be memorizing things. I think there’s a good balance there.”

The musical, titled “Love, John,” is set to have a reading by Baylor Theatre actors before the end of the semester. The story is about a failed musician who is forced to return to his hometown and wrestles with feelings for his childhood best friend. Nichols said he hopes to find a collaborator to write music for the play. Potentially, with Murray’s help, he would also like to stage it professionally.

While Nichols chose an alternative to his major, Lill chose to incorporate theories she’s learned in her philosophy classes in a format that was new to her.

Lill said the idea of presenting complex ideas in a way that is easy for children to understand has always intrigued her. She incorporated many different theories, including the Hilbert’s Hotel Paradox, a theory that addresses the behavior of infinite numbers. These ideas were spun into a story about a children’s world. The book, titled “Around the Color Wheel,” is about a girl who lives in a world without colors and embarks on a hot air balloon journey to find them.

“Philosophy takes simple things and turns them on their head,” Lill said. “But that’s also how kids think. They take an idea and just ask, ‘What if?’ So the whole project was a good exercise.”

Lill is set to intern with National Public Radio in Washington, D.C., upon graduation, and Nichols will be working with an accounting firm in Dallas. Both students were able to create a unique thesis outside their area of study and projected career path, but on subjects that were deeply interesting to them. The Baylor Honors Program allows students to grow intellectually, not only through their classes, but also through projects they are passionate about.

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