The Wichitan

Exploring ancient Africa

One student's undergraduate research project

Paige Champagne, Reporter

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College is about making friends, going to parties and having the time of their life. For others, college is about getting involved on campus, studying and getting the most out of their college education.

Kerdell Cuffy is one student who wants to learn more outside of the classroom.

To educate others about the history of Africa, finance sophomore Kerdell Cuffy chose to do an undergraduate research project this semester over a few of the ancient societies of Africa.

“When I analyzed the lifestyles of people and just what’s been going on recently,” Cuffy said, “The racial attitudes and whatnot, it just makes me think that there’s just a lack of knowledge about different cultures. If people took the time and understood what made a certain culture unique, then I believe they would be less prejudiced. That’s one of the aims of my project as well. I just wanted to create a way to just educate people on Africa’s history.”

The project was phase two of Cuffy’s Enhancing Undergraduate Research Endeavors & Creative Activities project from last year. Cuffy said her motivation for doing EURECA was simply that she wanted to do it.

“I always had interest in doing research,” Cuffy said. “I’ve always been that type of person. My major in college was history and we had to do a lot of historical research so I was always interested in that and I always wanted to find out more about Africa.”

The EURECA project focused on the civilizations of Mali, Aksum and Egypt and their cultures as well as technological advances of the time. Cuffy said she had to narrow her topic after finding more information about it than she had originally thought.

“When I wrote up my proposal I didn’t have much in it,” Cuffy said. “So I was like ‘I won’t really get much.’ Then…I uncovered so many ancient civilizations, I had to spend a lot of time cutting out ones that were unimportant.”

Cuffy’s mentor is Whitney Snow, an associate professor of history, and Cuffy was the first student for Snow to mentor through EURECA. Snow said that Cuffy insisted on having Snow as her mentor even though she told Cuffy she had no background in African history.

“Supervising Kerdelle’s project has been a learning experience for me, as well,” Snow said, “As it has inspired me to learn more about African history.”

Cuffy said the biggest problem she faced was gathering the resources she needed for her research.

“Because my research is historical research, I cannot just rely on websites so I have to get various books and journals and sometimes it’s really hard to come across certain books about Africa because they’re really hard to find,” Cuffy said. “Sometimes they’re not in the library so I have to have the library order it for me. Even recently they ordered a book for me but they misplaced it so that kind of pushed back my research”

Cuffy said that some of her other issues were staying motivated and pushing herself to do her work. She said that, due to the nature of research, she had to learn to manage her time.

“I have learned that I have to give myself a lot of time,” Cuffy said. “I have to start things earlier because often people would wait until the last minute, but with research, you can’t because if you wait until the last minute you won’t get anything.”

Undergraduate research is also an option for the “transformative learning” requirement of the Redwine Honors Program which Cuffy is a part of.

“It’s pretty awesome,” Cody Parish, Redwine Honors coordinator said, “Especially the fact that she’s not a history major she’s a finance major. And so the fact that she’s presenting research within a discipline that is not her field is pretty amazing.”

Parish has personal experience in undergraduate research as he was a part of the first group of EURECA researchers in 2013.

“[Undergraduate research] stimulates personal growth in a way that few other learning experiences can,” Parish said. “It teaches students how to research on a professional level because they’re guided by a faculty mentor. The idea is that whatever they’re working on will be published. That’s what it did for me is it showed me how to do research in a thorough, complete way.”

Although originally Cuffy intended on continuing her research on Africa even further next year, she said she decided to pursue a project in the field of financing after taking a break to focus on her studies.

“Next year I was going to look at how exactly African culture influenced other cultures but I decided to cut it off because I wanted to focus more on school,” Cuffy said. “I also want to do research in my field which is finance. So I said that I would come back to it later, probably in my senior year. So I do intend to continue it but not right now.”

Parish said he thinks undergraduate research can leave a lasting impact on students.

“It’s a completely different style of learning. It’s more hands-on and it’s just intellectually rigorous and it pushes you out of your comfort zone,” Parish said. “We think it’s important for honors students to experience one of these learning opportunities and so we’ve made it a requirement that students have to complete one of the ones that I just mentioned in order to graduate from our program.”

The work Cuffy has done in EURECA has taken her to present at five conferences. She has presented last semester’s research at conferences such as the Phi Alpha Theta Regional Conference at Texas A&M Commerce, and the annual Undergraduate Research & Creative Activity Forum.

“My favorite part is the fact that we get funds for traveling to conferences,” Cuffy said. “Once you’re in the program, even if you’re not [actively participating] in the program the next semester they can still help you with travel.”

Cuffy also presented last semester’s research at the Africa Conference at Tennessee State University and the Gulf South History & Humanities Conference in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, something that Snow said says a lot about her work.

“The Gulf South and Africa Conferences rarely accept undergraduate presenters so her acceptance speaks volumes about her ability as a scholar,” Snow said.

Parish said he doesn’t think that undergraduate research is not for everyone, which makes it all the more special.

“Some students don’t have the work ethic to complete undergraduate research and complete with the intellectual rigor that they’re wanting because it just takes time,” Parish said. “Some students just don’t have the discipline to put the time and the thought into whatever that research project is. So no I don’t think everyone can do it. That’s why it’s so important when students do it. Especially when they conduct research and they do it well.”

Cuffy, too, thinks that research isn’t for the average student who is just focused on passing their classes and graduating.

“You have to have a certain mindset,” Cuffy said. “You have to really be hardworking and focused and driven. Some people come to university and they’re like ‘I’m just here, I’m just gonna do school stuff and I don’t [care] about everything else.’ When you’re super involved in research and school and extracurricular activities, it’s a balance. I feel like it takes a certain type of character.”

Magaly Rincon-Zachary, the director of undergraduate research, said she thinks participating in undergraduate research is an experience that can reshape a student’s learning experience.

“[Students] usually say it is a great experience for them,” Rincon-Zachary said. “They learn from the experience and they say they feel more confident. They also make a lot of connections in class because of the experience that they have.”

Indeed, Cuffy said that she learned from the experience of research.

“What I learned is that it’s okay to be wrong at first,” Cuffy said. “That’s what research is about, research is about finding what’s most right, right? It’s always having to go further and dig deeper for you to find out the exact information you’re looking for.”

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About the Writer
Paige Champagne, Reporter

Paige Champagne is one of the reporters for The Wichitan. She is a first year mass communication major with a minor in digital media. She loves cats and...

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Exploring ancient Africa