Reinventing Capstone

A week and a half ago, I cried in a bathroom ten minutes before my capstone seminar. I was meant to present my progress to my fellow Social Research ...

Mar 7, 2015

A week and a half ago, I cried in a bathroom ten minutes before my capstone seminar. I was meant to present my progress to my fellow Social Research and Public Policy peers, but I had accomplished very little since the last time I had asked for their feedback. I gave in to the fear that my capstone was an impossible task, that I wouldn’t graduate or that I’d be asked to leave. This feeling passed, of course. I stopped crying and went to the seminar. I presented something vague and inconclusive and got through the class. But my mini-breakdown was not unusual — in fact, it happens more often than I’d like.
I started a brand new capstone project two weeks into spring semester of my senior year. What should have been a semester of bringing together the final pieces of my senior thesis instead became half-hearted late night research to find a new topic. The reason for my switch was quite simple — I didn’t feel committed to or excited about my previous topic and I really believed that was the reason I felt so discouraged by the capstone.
I was wrong. The feelings I have towards my new topic are just as lukewarm as before. It turns out that I strongly dislike the capstone altogether. And, it also turns out that I’m not alone in the sentiment. An overwhelming number of seniors have told me the same thing that runs through my mind on almost a daily basis: “Capstone should be optional.”
I realize how reductive this statement can seem. The capstone is different for every discipline. If you asked me how it works for a science major or for engineering majors, I could not give you a very good answer. But every senior’s aspirations are different, and shouldn’t our senior years look different too?
My plan for the future has changed a lot over this past academic year. I started senior year believing I would take the GRE and go to graduate school in Fall 2016. However, this changed quickly. I realized by October that I had grown uninspired by academics and academia and that I missed having a job. Finding a job as fulfilling as my internships throughout my time at NYUAD was an exciting prospect, while the thought of taking on another two years of school just seemed exhausting. That is what I wanted my senior year to look like and, whether I realized it or not, that is what I had been working towards. I wanted to put my time and energy into enjoying the job I currently held, a Resident Assistant for seniors, and find new extracurriculars that I was interested in and that I thought would bolster my skills for a job in education. And I have done all of this.
For the most part I’ve enjoyed my job as an RA and I joined a peer support initiative, REACH, that has brought me a lot of joy. But I’ve been overwhelmed. All of it seemed manageable in the past — courses, internships, extracurriculars — but with the addition of the capstone, this year has felt like a never-ending climb.
I know I’m not alone. I have witnessed pre-capstone bathroom-breakdown situations with some of my peers. But I can also see that for others, the capstone has been engaging and exciting and something to feel passionate about. Where are these differences coming from? Is the miserable bunch I feel like I’m part of just picking lousy topics?
Senior Kimi Rodriguez echoes my thoughts well. “I think [the capstone] should be encouraged but not mandatory," she said. "There is a lot to gain from working on something for a long period of time and being involved in it, but at the same time I don’t think that it is conducive to everyone’s prospective career paths.”
I do not want to go into academia. I want to learn skills that will prepare me for what I know is a difficult job market. I want to have the option to take extra courses that I’m interested in during my last year instead of having to enroll in a mandatory capstone seminar. I want the work I’m doing to warrant the attention it deserves. And I want that for my peers as well. I want those who want to go to graduate school or pursue a career in academia to be given the time to work on their research and to put together a piece of work that they are proud of. And I want that work to be recognized, perhaps in the way that NYU New York does it — you work on a senior thesis and your hard work and efforts are recognized by graduating with an honors degree. We don’t have that at NYUAD. What started as a possibility for interdisciplinary work and student tailored projects has become formulaic and stifling to some.
If this is a pipedream and the capstone cannot possibly become optional, at the very least I think the direction it is going in should be reconsidered. The original vision of the capstone, found in the 2010-2011 academic bulletin, allowed for “the opportunity to organize and participate in a college-wide team project. A College Capstone draws together students from different fields and with different strengths to focus on a multifaceted problem or creative endeavor.” This direction was quickly discarded; in fact, collaboration across disciplines, and even within disciplines, is discouraged.
This could be a starting point for change. Let’s revisit the idea of multidisciplinary work as a senior requirement. Let’s have the voices of those who are experiencing the capstone right now help restructure what the capstone could be for future graduating classes.
Senior Olivia Bergen brings up a potential suggestion: “A senior project, which could be academic-focused but could also be something that benefited the community, like hosting a large-scale charitable event, building something for the school, etc. I think that would capture the talents and interests of [more] students so much more than [what is in place], while leaving the academic project open for those who would benefit for it for grad school, etc.”
Our institution is still quite new and because of that, there is room for change and growth. If the students here are meant to be shaping the image, curriculum and traditions of NYUAD, then the capstone, which is such a huge component of senior year, should be one of the main aspects we should be working towards improving.
Roshni Dadlani is a contributing writer. Email her at
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