Last spring, as government major Cori Simmons and her Research Methods class watched revolutions unfold in the Middle East – dubbed the “Arab Spring” by the media – she was most surprised to find that she wasn’t surprised.

“It was in your face, everywhere, and everyone seemed to be shocked,” Simmons recalls. “To me it seemed natural, like it was inevitable. I wanted to know why my gut was telling me that.”

At this year’s fourth annual Government Department Student Research Conference, Simmons and 19 other graduate and undergraduate students presented original research on a wide variety topics related to the theme of “Passion, Protest, and Politics”. Subjects ranged from economic instability in the European Union — to conflict minerals in Africa — to American election politics.

According to department chair Rachael Cobb, this conference is a chance for students to professionalize their work and set the tone for their future studies.

“We put such strong emphasis on undergraduate research and presenting to peers so students develop skills that will serve them well in academia and beyond,” explains Cobb.

Deconstructing Middle Eastern politics

Simmons originally came to Suffolk as an art student, but became “hooked” on politics after taking introductory government courses. She was in Professor Cobb’s class when the uprisings began, first in Tunisia, then in Egypt and Libya.

“Contrary to the media perception that this was a wave of very similar revolutions, my research found that the causes and catalysts varied widely,” she explains. “So did the government handling of the revolts, involvement from the international community, and ultimately the rebuilding process. The timing was similar, some economic issues were shared, but the revolutions were each unique.”

Simmons hopes the lessons she’s learned about the economic underpinnings of the Arab Spring will help inform the work she does in her chosen field of international development. Perhaps governments will be more likely to invest in the economic well-being of women and other marginalized groups if they perceive that goal as crucial to their own political success.

Revolutionary politics in the U.S.

Government major Jibran Malek, also a sophomore, chose Suffolk in part because the University’s diverse community “enriches discussions by adding a mix of worldviews.”

His particular focus is on America’s own history of protest and violent change:

“My research is about why major policy changes in America – from our country’s founding to civil rights and now issues like gay marriage or the Occupy movements – are so frequently fueled by violent protests and social upheaval. Of course society changes, so why are we so averse to reviewing and amending the Constitution periodically to reflect that?”

Lively debate over issues in the classroom – as well as research about the founding fathers’ differing views on the permanency of the Constitution – have reinforced Malek’s desire to see laws that reflect the dynamic nature of society. Using his undergraduate research as a foundation, Malek plans to study and practice Constitutional Law.

Ready to make a difference

“Our goal is to make sure each student has the skill set needed to fully research and analyze the topics that interest them, and to use their time here not only to hone those abilities, but to develop a portfolio and an area of expertise that they may carry out into the world,” says Cobb.

After all, it’s sometimes best to effect change from the inside.