They Slayed It

This year marks the largest number of USC Dornsife students from the Master of Liberal Studies program to present their research at the annual, international Graduate Liberal Studies Joint Symposium.

Kayla Hengami was given an assignment to select writing studied in class and another work of her choosing to use as a lens to explore the concept of borders.

“Going into this paper, I wasn’t quite sure where I was going to take it, or more astutely, where it would take me,” Hengami recalled. “I had a keen interest in the work Angels In America, which we read in class. And I knew I wanted to use Buffy the Vampire Slayer as well, since for me, Buffy has been an important figure in my life since I was about 9 or 10.”

The resulting paper compared the Prior character in Tony Kushner’s play Angels with the protagonist in Joss Whedon’s television series Buffy and discussed how both cross the boundaries of good and evil, living in a moral gray zone. The paper was selected for the Seventh Annual Graduate Liberal Studies Joint Symposium that took place in June.

Hengami was among six students from USC Dornsife’s Master of Liberal Studies (MLS) program chosen to present their research at the international symposium. This year marks the largest number of USC Dornsife students selected to present at the symposium.

The students traveled to Dominican University of California in San Rafael, Calif., this year’s host institution. Launched in 2007 as a way to bring together graduate liberal studies students, alumni and staff for a weekend of social and intellectual interaction, the symposium has grown to include participants from seven west coast schools and Maastricht University in the Netherlands.

The USC Dornsife students were among 43 symposium presenters. 

“It was such a pleasure to meet, listen to and present among other curious minds eager to learn and share knowledge,” said Hengami, who is writing her MLS thesis on Buffy in relation to the “girl culture” of the late 1990s. “I had such a positive experience at the conference, and it is a memory I will cherish.”

Another MLS presenter, Mischalgrace Diasanta, analyzed the travel writing of four American authors who wrote about the Philippine colonial administration between 1902 and 1913. Her paper showed how administration’s negative and ambivalent representations of the Muslim Filipinos became critical in shaping United States policy of maintaining control of the Philippines. She concluded that current representations of Muslims in today’s post-9/11 world had roots in America’s first imperial expansion overseas.

MLS presenter Darianne Dobbie compared the poetry of Walt Whitman and the lyrics of the song “Saving Grace” by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Dobbie proposed that while Whitman expressed optimistic freedom found in societal comradeship, Petty described a nation of “outsider” emotionally isolated individuals, devoid of the communal spirit and brotherhood that Whitman professed.

At the symposium, MLS presenter Jason Murillo explored how two artists, Caushun and Frank Ocean, have navigated the homophobic world of hip hop to claim a space in which they can openly identify as homosexuals.

Drawing upon interviews of Mexican immigrants about their perceptions of and identities with fish tacos, futbol and the telenovela, MLS presenter Roselia Rodriguez illustrated the complexities of the cultural assimilation process.

Yet another MLS student, Jeri Schuessler-Loynachan, presented a montage of Los Angeles-area billboards to illustrate how these graphic images, through their random juxtapositions in the urban landscape, conjure unintended narratives which both promote and challenge our sense of place and identities.

In addition to giving the students the experience of preparing, submitting and presenting papers, the symposium fostered academic community among the different universities. 

“This symposium has become a very important part of the academic experience in our program,” said Susan Kamei, USC Dornsife associate dean of advanced and professional programs and director of MLS. “The selection process is competitive. Our students take this opportunity quite seriously and we have been pleased that each year, the quality of the presentations is high.”

For the students, the experience is invaluable. 

“Although the idea of presenting to my peers made me nervous, I quickly realized that I was surrounded by people who were there to support and encourage me,” Diasanta said. “I enjoyed the variety of topics that were presented — it was a truly liberal spread.” 

Rodriguez said her efforts were rewarded when an audience member told her that she enjoyed the presentation and could relate to many of the issues brought up in the paper.

“I felt validated by the responses I received from the audience,” she said.

Dobbie said she was proud to watch her fellow classmates give such excellent presentations. She said she learned from the experience.

“Hearing the presentations of students from other universities stirred up different and interesting questions in my own mind,” she said. “I look forward to attending next year.”

To learn more about the MLS program and future symposia, visit, e-mail or call (213) 740-1349.