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The Honors Thesis: An Investment with a Great Return

How Ogden Honors alum Kalena Thomhave is using her Honors Thesis research to give back to Louisiana residents

Students enrolled in the LSU Roger Hadfield Ogden Honors College are expected to write an Honors Thesis in the senior year. This long-term independent research project is the capstone to the Honors curriculum and is an academic achievement in its own right. But what happens to the Honors Thesis after the student graduates? Does the research get published or make an impact in the wider world? Do Honors College alumni get to use that undergraduate research in their postgraduate careers?

The answer is often a resounding yes.

“I can’t tell you how often I hear from alumni – and employers – how instrumental the thesis project is to success after college,” said Ogden Honors College Dean Jonathan Earle. “Identifying a research problem and using methodological skills to solve it is a very true-to-life model of the real-world challenges all our graduates face.”

Take Ogden Honors College alumna Kalena Thomhave. Since graduating from LSU in May 2014 with College Honors and a dual degree in political science and English, she’s been working at Mid City Redevelopment Alliance (MCRA), an economic development nonprofit in Baton Rouge. Thomhave’s Honors Thesis has been more than an accomplishment to be listed on her transcript. Her research on economic development and social mobility helped her to define her long-term career goals, secure her current position, and have a positive impact on local low-income communities.

As with many Ogden Honors College students, Thomhave was connected to research opportunities at LSU through an LSU Alumni Association work-study scholarship, which places first-year students in research positions with faculty members. “I had the Chancellor’s Future Leaders in Research scholarship,” Thomhave recalls. “So right away, as a freshman, I was thrown into research – first with the English department then later political science.”

Her changing interests were the result of her participation in the Ogden Honors College Louisiana Service and Leadership (LASAL) Program, which supplements the Honors curriculum with courses that explore Louisiana’s social, economic, and environmental issues, such as coastal erosion and rural poverty. “With LASAL, you focus on Louisiana’s pressing problems, and I was really drawn to issues of poverty,” Thomhave said. “Where I grew up, the attitude was, if you were poor, it was your own fault. The realization just came on like a train: that I could have been poor, you know. I was just lucky to have gone to a good public school and to live in the community that I lived in. I just didn’t understand that before I came to Louisiana. And it was the Honors College coursework that really made me consider how pressing these problems are.”

LASAL Scholars don’t just study these issues in the classroom – they travel to communities around the state to undertake service projects and meet with local leaders and residents. “I really remember our trip to Tensas Parish,” Thomhave said. “It’s one of the poorest parishes in Louisiana, one of the poorest places in the country. One of the students we met said, ‘Oh, well, when we’re hungry, we just go fishing.’ That just threw everything into perspective for me. When you’re driving down Dalrymple, and you see people fishing in the lakes . . .”

In her thesis, Thomhave focused on issues of social mobility. She began working with Associate Professor of Political Science Belinda Davis to research the effects of social capital – the economic benefits of involvement in social networks and organizations, such as churches or neighborhood associations – on levels of poverty. “I wanted to see how social capital could affect community development,” Thomhave explained. “Those are two very abstract things, so a lot of my thesis work was trying to figure out how to measure that.”

“I was able to give Kalena access to data on Louisiana’s welfare-to-work program,” Davis said. “She used that data to examine whether or not social capital in a community influences the amount of income women earned after they left the welfare-to-work program.”

Thomhave found women leaving welfare in parishes with higher levels of social capital had an associated income increase of $272 a year. “That didn’t seem like that much to me,” Thomhave recalled. “But then I brought that to Dr. Davis, and she pointed out it’s a lot of money considering the average post-welfare leaver has an annual income of $4,000.”

“Kalena learned about the importance of research methods, and how even a basic knowledge of statistics can help you answer a question,” Davis said. “And it helped her solidify her interest in pursuing work after graduation that focuses on low-income communities.”

Which is exactly what she did. Her thesis successfully defended, she graduated and then spent part of the summer working with schoolchildren in Ecuador on a Volunteer LSU trip. She returned to Baton Rouge to begin working at MCRA. “My title is asset-building coordinator,” Thomhave said. “I’m the coordinator of Bank On Baton Rouge, which is a program to get unbanked and underbanked people into the financial mainstream – banks and credit unions – and away from check cashers and predatory lenders.”

The program provides educational materials on traditional financial services to individuals who don’t typically use, and may even distrust, those services. “Bank On Baton Rouge is an initiative that is capable of moving people out of poverty and placing them on a sustainable path to economic independence,” said MCRA Executive Director Samuel Sanders. “It’s important work because it’s not a handout – it’s an investment in people to help them achieve better outcomes for themselves and their families.”

In other words, Thomhave is working every day to respond to the disparities she uncovered in her thesis research. “I wanted to not only study why people move up,” she said, “but to actually aid people in moving up.” Individuals living in low-wealth households may have had a discouraging experience with a bank in the past, according to Thomhave. “When you don’t grow up with an institution like that as part of your daily norm,” she explained, “you might not even know things that we just assume everyone knows – like what a check is, and how to use it.”

“Kalena’s thesis research has absolutely prepared her for the work she is doing with Bank On Baton Rouge,” Sanders said. “Her familiarity with the issues surrounding poverty make her keenly aware of the difficulty these individuals and families are facing, and that awareness makes her capable of considering and suggesting ways to reach and impact people who can benefit from the initiative.”

Thomhave has also been reworking Bank On Baton Rouge’s financial education materials using the recommendations set out in the thesis research of another Ogden Honors College alumnus, Victor Lashley. “Victor was in LASAL with me, and he was two years ahead of me,” Thomhave said. “He was a marketing major, and his thesis was a marketing analysis of Bank On Baton Rouge. I remember going to his presentation at the Thesis Colloquium. He had these maps of the payday lending institutions in Baton Rouge, and the poor areas were completely saturated with them.” 

Ogden Honors alum Victor Lashley

“I compared empirical marketing research on financial decision-making against what Bank On Baton Rouge had in place as its marketing plan at that time,” Lashley explained. “And what Bank On Baton Rouge had in place was not aligned with what would be successful in reaching the targeted population. The language assumed the mechanics of banking services were already understood." 

Thomhave said that, when she began working on the program, “All the marketing materials read, for example, ‘financial institution.’ But real people don’t say, ‘Oh, I have to get to my financial institution before five’ – they say they have to get to their bank. And the brochures would have a family on the front – a mom and a dad and two kids– but that’s not the typical unbanked family in Baton Rouge. So if you can’t place yourself within the program, then what’s the point of it?”

“These were things I knew in an abstract way,” Thomhave said, “but Victor’s thesis had all of this written down, with citations and recommendations. It was something I could take to the steering committee and say, ‘What we’re doing is wrong, and this is why.’ And it worked! We’re changing the materials to better reflect the issues that are important to our audience.”

In her spare time, Thomhave continues to work with Davis to expand her own thesis research. They’ve added measures to evaluate whether higher levels of income inequality in a community interfere with the effects of social capital and are preparing the paper for publication in a scholarly journal. “Dr.

Davis is so great,” Thomhave said. “We work together, but it’s also still my own thesis. That’s what’s great about LSU, really. The faculty are so open to students doing their own research.”

Thomhave hopes ultimately to attend a dual-degree graduate program to obtain a master’s degree in public policy and a master’s in social work. “With social work, you have the human side of issues, and then with public policy you have the research side,” she explained, “and that’s really important to me, to have both.”

Lashley, who lives in New York City and works in global trade for J.P. Morgan, cites his time in the Ogden Honors College as having a “long-term impact on my career path.”

“The hands-on curricular offerings, the dedicated staff of the Honors College – that was all essential to my personal sense of self and my professional preparedness,” he said. “My Honors College experiences helped to round-out my resumé and elevated my candidacy to a level beyond that of a typical marketing-degree holder.”

Thomhave also credits her experience as an Ogden Honors student, and her Honors Thesis research, as having helped to shape her future endeavors. “People say about the Honors College, ‘It’s a small liberal arts college experience at a research university,’ and when you first hear that, you’re like, oh, okay, cliché,” Thomhave said. “But it’s so true. So true. The Honors classes really do provide the opportunity to think critically about issues, to explore who you are and why you want to do the things that you do, and how you can contribute to the world in your own way.”

“People talk a lot about finding your tribe,” Thomhave concluded, “and I found that at the Honors College.”


Article by Liz Billet, Originally published in the Spring 2015 LSU Alumni Magazine