Name: Jessi Thaller, '09
Major: Rhetoric & Communication Studies
Women, Gender & Sexuality Studies
Minor: Latin American & Iberian Studies
Academics: Oldham Scholar
Lambda Pi Eta (rhetoric honors)
Omicron Kappa Delta (national leadership honors)
Phi Beta Delta (international honors)
Activities: Alpha Phi Omega
Women Involved in Living and Learning
Tour Guide
Allies Institute
Westhampton Council

You've got an interesting mix of majors and minors - how do they all work together?

One thing about the study of rhetoric that really resonates with me is the emphasis on word choice and how seemingly minute details, like diction, can literally change reality. In all honesty I feel like my majors and minor have all worked together to re-emphasize that fact. As I learn the theory in RHCS, my WGSS classes are showing me how these theories are played out in interpersonal relationships, in the workplace, in global dynamics, etc. My study of Spanish has developed into an interest in Latin America, a region in which many countries are both macro and micro examples of how these rhetorically constructed power hierarchies play out.

So you're writing an honors RHCS thesis. Has this kind of interdisciplinary crossover influenced what you've chosen to research?

Absolutely. I'm writing my thesis on the rhetoric of immigration. It's still in its preliminary stages, but I do know that I plan to focus on immigration between Mexico and the U.S. and how it is socially perceived. This means looking at the idea of Mexico as a threat to our economy, safety and culture and how it conflicts with the "melting pot" idea. I'm thinking about questions like, are we really afraid of difference or is that a big way of saying that we don't want "our" jobs taken away by people that we have been taught are the Other? A lot of my questions center on how Mexico relates to the United States, what different race/gender identities mean in different cultures and even how meanings can literally be lost in translation.

What are some examples that you've come across?

Well, a literal translation of "I am hot" into Spanish is the equivalent of saying "I am horny." If someone is content remaining in their ethnocentric bubble even as they "learn" another's language, they can fail to take things like this into consideration, so like I said, little words make a big difference. Another key example: we don't think twice about calling ourselves "Americans," but doesn't that automatically exclude some 20 other countries who are also in the Americas? What kind of value choice is that?

Have you had other experiences during your time at Richmond that have influenced this course of study?

One was definitely the six months I spent living in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 2007. I lived with a Spanish-speaking host family, was directly enrolled at a university there and all of my classes were in Spanish. After living in the suburbs my whole life and then being on campus for two years, living in the shopping district of a 13 million person city was culture shock all in itself!

I loved the opportunity I had to travel through Argentina and Chile and feel like I learned so much about the world outside of my own bubble in the process. It really was a great way to get first hand experience on these topics, such as social justice and Latin America, which had fascinated me for so long. For instance, after reading about Argentina's military dictatorship of the 1970s for years, living with people who had actually experienced it gave me a totally different dimension from which to think about it.

And your internship this past summer dealt with social justice and Latin America as well?

Yes, my internship was with a Latin American policy nonprofit, the Center for Democracy in the Americas. Its overarching goal is essentially to promote a more egalitarian policy approach between the U.S. and Latin American countries and to restructure the sort of entitlement that our culture seems to grant, in which we need to "teach" other cultures to be "civilized" via governmental overhauls and military invention.

What kind of work did you do there?

The specific focus was on the Cuban embargo as an outdated, ineffective policy, promoting instead a space for free dialogue to hopefully revolutionize our relationship with the country just 90 miles off of our coast. The office itself only had 4 people in it, myself included, but it was amazing to see what an impact such a small organization could have! We were often cited when members of Capitol Hill needed more information, we put together trips for members of Congress and their aids to take to Cuba and helped to push some influential policies through Congress. It was eye opening in so many ways.