Student Spotlight: Ieshia Smith '14 — ICS Distinguished Thesis Award Winner

Thursday, May 15, 2014
Student Spotlight: Ieshia Smith '14 — ICS Distinguished Thesis Award Winner

Each year the ICS Program presents the Distinguished Thesis award to the student whose thesis represents the best work accomplished in the yearlong honors seminar. This year’s winner is Ieshia Smith, who earned highest honors for her thesis, The Plastic Face: Nation-Branding and Personal Branding in 21st Century South Korea

To convey a sense of Ieshia’s achievement, here is the assessment of her thesis by her research supervisor, Professor Cheehyung Kim (Asian and Middle Eastern Studies)

Ieshia’s originality in her thesis, “The Plastic Face,” lies in her contextual and non-essentialist approach to the often exoticized trend of plastic surgery in South Korea today. Ieshia locates such surgery within multiple, interconnected settings: nation-state building; economic development; gendered modernization; and neoliberal social life in which competition and self-branding and marketing have become key components in the transition to a stable adulthood. At the same time, she equally considers the tradition and history of the importance of physical and facial features in Korean society, which have survived to this day as the commerce of physiognomy (or face-reading). 

Especially powerful is Ieshia’s argument that women’s self-branding is part of South Korea’s nation-branding, as the country and its industries transform from a  “masculine” development model based on physical labor and heavy industries to a more “feminine” model based on technology, service, and capital-driven accumulation. The representatives of the nation-state’s advancement are no longer sweaty, thick-forearmed men but slim, cosmopolitan women.

Ieshia Smith’s thesis is outstanding in other aspects, too, especially in her clear prose and use of primary sources such as advertisements, Internet testimonials, and firsthand experience living and studying in Korea. Her work exemplifies the kind of interdisciplinary scholarship that is redefining the meaning of scholarly work today.

We are delighted to congratulate Ieshia on her superb achievement.

Ieshia sat down with us on the eve of graduation to offer some thoughts about her experience as an ICS major and her hopes and plans for the future.

ICS: Ieshia, you just graduated with degrees in ICS and Political Science. What’s next for you?

I must confess that the foolproof life plan I had since the first grade fell apart at the beginning of my senior year at Duke. Prior to this point, I strongly believed that I would attend an elite law school immediately after graduation and spend the rest of my days practicing law. However, after a bout of self-reflection in early October, I realized that my personal priorities had rapidly shifted, and my new life trajectory no longer aligned with my childhood fantasy. Ultimately, I made the difficult decision to forgo law school at this point in my life and focus on gaining work experience before potentially committing to higher academic pursuits.

Now like many of my classmates I’m still figuring out who I am as a person and what I want to do with my future. To judge from the experiences I’ve heard about, the path ahead may be long and daunting, offering a journey filled with slammed doors, missed connections, and dead ends. But I believe in two beautifully simple aspects of human nature: the audacity to hope and the will to push forward. I also believe that graduating from college without a firm grasp on the future is absolutely okay. There are limitless possibilities ahead and with a bit of patience, I expect I will find that special satisfying something.

ICS: What would you say to students thinking about taking on honors projects or other self-assigned challenges?

Theodore Roosevelt once said: “Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty… I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life.”  At times when I was working on my thesis I felt like I reached my breaking point and questioned why I had decided to do honors. The work was often demanding; the suggestions my advisors gave were sometimes difficult to understand; the feedback on my writing-in-progress was occasionally hard to take. And no one told me that these cruel brushes with reality would lead to the most rewarding moments in my life thus far. Duke challenges its students to maximize their potential using the vast resources available—and I ultimately felt fulfilled that I had taken advantage of some of these opportunities.

Looking back over all the courses I have taken at Duke, the honors seminar courses were hands down my favorite. However, I would not have applied for the honors program had I not taken other courses in which I was able to explore several of my interests, such as Korean culture, human sexuality, and social media. From these courses, I found the necessary theoretical discourses and research methodology that proved instrumental in conceptualizing my thesis proposal and ultimately completing The Plastic Face.

For students interested in undertaking ICS honors, I highly encourage you to examine your passions and build from there. A successful thesis is born when the writer truly loves the subject matter, and you cannot write a thesis if you lack the internal fire to guide you through the dark spots of the process. Find the lighter that ignites your flame and you’ll realize that you can achieve greatness, whether you want to write an ICS thesis or challenge yourself in another dimension.

ICS: Any thoughts you want to share with your classmates as you look forward?

I do follow some principles that work for me, so here’s an easy, breezy rundown of my advice to recent graduates and young professionals:

  •  Avoid measuring yourself against the success of others; in the end, you’re the one who controls your destiny.
  • Be cautious of people who undermine your accomplishments, because these people only hinder your ambitions.
  • Sooner rather than later, cut the toxic elements out of your life and surround yourself with friends and family who uplift and encourage you.  There’s no point in making life harder—it’s already difficult enough!
  • Stay true to your passions and your dreams; there is no right or wrong way to reach a destination so long as you do not lose yourself in the process.

And, as a true Trekkie, I leave you with these words: live long and prosper.