Finding a Thesis, Part 3: Advice from Nicki Pombier Berger

This blog post is the third and final in a three-part series by Laura Barnett. In the series, Laura shares lessons gleaned from OHMA alumni about finding a thesis topic. Read the first and second ones.

Nicki Pombier Berger (OHMA 2013)’s undergraduate work was in Culture, Politics, & International Affairs. In 2007, while pursuing an MFA in Fiction at Sarah Lawrence College, Nicki took Gerry Albarelli’s Oral History & Literature class. “Taking Gerry’s class helped identify many things I loved and was passionate about but hadn’t been able to draw a circle around: language, curiosity about the world, the experience of one-to-one engagements. I was completely taken by Oral History. I loved the rigors of the form and the experience of being in a space with someone whom I otherwise wouldn’t have encountered.”

In 2008, Nicki traveled to Cambodia. Her intention: to conduct oral history interviews and gather testimonials about the effects of the Khmer Rouge. “I got fired up with ideas about storytelling, loss, and how oral history gives a canvas to this invisible past, a past that people carry around in ways that are integral to who they are, ways that are invisible but profoundly present.”

In conversation, Nicki assesses the Cambodian project. “In retrospect, I was limited with language, time, and finances. I wasn’t able to do what I set out to do and felt  - on a certain level  - that I failed my principles.” This led to a year of reflection, re-definition, and re-articulation of goals. In Fall 2010, Nicki enrolled part-time in OHMA.

Nicki’s original interest was American humanitarian aid workers who respond to national crises. She was motivated by the question, “How do people contend with work that is characterized by so much urgency and need, yet also by so much bureaucracy?”

Midway into the OHMA program, soon after the birth of her son, Jonah, who has Down syndrome, Nicki switched thesis topics. As part of OHMA’s public workshop series, presented in partnership with the Program in Narrative Medicine, on November 13, 2014, Nicki presented ‘Oral History and Intellectual Disability: Navigating Authority, Authorship, and Advocacy.’ The presentation represents a development of her thesis Nothing About Us Without Us, an online collection of stories from self-advocates with Down syndrome.

 Nicki, Jonah, and project collaborator, narrator, and friend David Egan

Nicki, Jonah, and project collaborator, narrator, and friend David Egan

Nicki’s thesis advisor was Rachel Adams, Professor of English and American Studies and member of Columbia’s Disability Studies Committee. 

I can’t really remember if there was a moment – if there was a choice – I just followed my life. The subject I came up with led me to think a lot deeper about questions that I think are philosophically similar to ones I had originally; they just have a different point of entry. 

Nicki’s advice to OHMA students who might be unsure about their thesis topics: “Attend to what you are passionate about and even what might make you afraid. Dig deep. Don’t be prescriptive.  Do anything you can to alleviate the pressure of the idea that this needs to be informed by the future in some way.”

Join us for the upcoming talks in the 2015 Oral History workshop series, in which OHMA alumni and other professional oral historians discuss their current work.