Study Abroad Ignites Passion for Undergraduate Research

Senior Shannon McKeown was inspired to research Jordanian national identity following a semester in Amman.

January 31, 2019

Shannon McKeown

Shannon McKeown, a senior majoring in international affairs concentrating in Middle East and security policy, is researching how young people in Amman, Jordan, talk about national identity. (Photo provided by Shannon McKeown)

By Kristen Mitchell

While studying abroad in Jordan last year, senior Shannon McKeown started noticing the distinct way people living in Amman described where they were from. From taxi drivers to new friends, individuals whose families had come to Jordan decades ago and had assimilated into Jordanian culture still always mentioned the places their relatives were originally from.

Many of the people she met weren’t just Jordanian, they were Jordanian of Palestinian origin, they told her. These conversations inspired Ms. McKeown to pursue a research project that examines the Jordanian government’s national identity policies in the post 1970s period and analyzes their effects on Jordanian-Palestinian communities.

“Those conversations really got me thinking about how people in Jordan define their national identity,” she said. “It’s not necessarily based on what your legal citizenship is, it’s a feeling rather than what your passport says.”

Ms. McKeown, who is majoring in international affairs and concentrating in Middle East and security policy, applied to the Elliott School Undergraduate Scholars Program to pursue her research. This allowed her to travel to Amman, Jordan, again for 10 days over winter break. She talked with locals between ages 18 and 26 about how legal citizenship and national identity interact in Amman and whether that has led to the inclusion or exclusion of certain political communities in economic and social spaces.

“I chose that specific demographic because it would be the most accessible to me as a university student myself, but also because there haven’t really been any studies focusing on this generation and their feelings toward national identity,” she said. “It was really interesting for me to look at the youth because in certain cases they would be two generations, three generations out from their family members who immigrated to Jordan, either voluntarily or involuntarily.”

A large number of Palestinians live in Jordan, along with people who have been forced to flee Syria and Iraq. Since their families came to the country, many of them have gained full citizenship and have assimilated into Jordanian society. Ms. McKeown plans to present her work at Research Days in April and the Elliott Scholars Research Symposium. She also is exploring opportunities to share it at a conference.

Shannon McKeown

Shannon McKeown explored Petra, Jordan, while studying abroad last year. She pursued research funding opportunities that allowed her to return to Jordan over winter break during her senior year. (Photo provided by Shannon McKeown)

Ms. McKeown is still honing the data she collected over winter break, relistening to interviews and looking at participant responses for commonalities. Her preliminary findings suggest the younger generation is more inclusive and accepting of Jordanians of difference backgrounds because they have grown up in a more diverse community than their parents and grandparents.

“It’s important to look at how the youth are feeling because they are going to determine the future of Jordan and ensure that it remains a stable country in a pretty volatile region,” she said.

Nathan Brown, political science professor and Ms. McKeown’s research adviser, said Ms. McKeown spent a long time on the institutional review board (IRB) process, which looks at ethical considerations of a study. He encouraged students to approach faculty members early and not to be shy about brainstorming possible topics.

“Designing a good project takes time and lots of advance thinking,” he said. “There is no better way to get an idea of how to translate general interests into a specific research project than taking the first steps under the guidance of a supportive mentor.”

Ms. McKeown received a 2018 Elliott School Undergraduate Research Award, which provided additional funding to cover the costs of research and presenting her work. She encourages other students passionate about specific subjects to pursue research opportunities at GW.

“It’s really important to pursue what you are interested in because at the end of the day, that’s going to keep you very motivated throughout the entire process,” she said. “You are going to have to be doing a lot of reading and analyzing and thinking about your topic, so you need to make sure that is something you are really committed to putting a lot of time and effort into.”

Ms. McKeown says doing research has helped her gain confidence to take on challenges in the future and believes critical thinking, analytical skills and independence she has learned will translate well to other aspects of her life.

To learn more about available research opportunities contact the GW Center for Undergraduate Fellowships and Research.