Celeste Landry Hernandez ’24 Creates an Immersive, Interactive Honors Thesis for Her GWS, IS Majors

Celeste Landry Hernandez ’24 Creates an Immersive, Interactive Honors Thesis for Her GWS, IS Majors

Academics, Community Outreach, Research, Study Abroad, Testimonials

May 28, 2024

Celeste Landry Hernandez ’24 Creates an Immersive, Interactive Honors Thesis for Her GWS, IS Majors Celeste Landry Hernandez '24

“Art is something that transcends borders, transcends languages, and transcends cultures,” Celeste Landry Hernandez ’24 says. “Art impacts and resonates with everybody, and if there’s any way for people to articulate knowledge through art, they should do it.”

Landry Hernandez’s advocacy for the arts has infused her entire academic career. She has effectively employed that passion in her gender and women’s studies and international studies majors, culminating in an immersive senior honors thesis that she says was designed to test herself as much as its readers.

Born in El Salvador, Landry Hernandez left the country with her family when she was four years old. She grew up in various locations around the world, including the United States. “I’ve moved around quite a bit, about every three to five years,” she explains, and as a result, “I’ve lived alongside a multitude of cultures.” By the time she was a senior in high school and beginning her college search, Landry Hernandez was residing in Kathmandu, Nepal. “That’s when I discovered gender and women’s studies [GWS] and what it entails. It has everything to do with people and their lived experiences.”

Attending her first year of college online while still living in Kathmandu, Landry Hernandez learned about Hollins while searching for schools with rolling admission policies. She applied after doing a deep dive into the university’s various academic departments, study abroad programs, and alumnae/i network. Ultimately, Hollins’ offer of a generous financial aid package convinced her to enroll. “I visited Hollins for the first time at the beginning of my sophomore year and I really, really liked it. It’s a stunning campus,” she says.

Two courses taken during her first year at Hollins impacted Landry Hernandez profoundly. Girlhood Studies with Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies LeeRay Costa “has been one of the classes that has fundamentally changed me,” she says, further solidifying her interest in GWS. Landry Hernandez also took the Global Politics and Religious Freedom course taught by Assistant Professor of Global Politics and Societies Ashleigh Breske. “It was the first IS course I took at Hollins and immediately I was enthralled with the material. I thought, ‘You know what? This goes hand-in-hand with a GWS degree. Analyzing international relations through a gendered lens can reveal how gender and racial stereotypes and norms influence diplomatic strategies, conflict resolutions, and development policies. It can also uncover the roles women and marginalized groups play in international affairs and how their contributions are often overlooked or undervalued. Furthermore, when it comes to historical narratives, and how certain historical events are remembered in public memory, it is imperative to apply a GWS perspective so that dominant narratives are interrogated and challenged.”

She adds, “I would like to think at the end of the day I would have ended up double majoring in GWS and IS even if I hadn’t been raised abroad, but I think that a lot of my upbringing informed my decision.”

Landry Hernandez has found the the complementary nature of GWS and IS invaluable while pursuing both study abroad and internship opportunities. During this year’s January Short Term, she was among eight students and faculty who participated in Hollins’ inaugural study abroad experience in Kenya. Over the course of 16 days, the group explored in depth how reproductive health care and justice in the East African nation are affected by community, medical, and legal influences. They also studied needs, access, and practices and engaged with academics, health care professionals, and both urban and rural citizens.

Upon returning to Hollins, Landry Hernandez was contacted by Career and Life Design Associate Director Amber Becke about an intriguing internship that had been created by a local nonprofit that provides community-based programming and support to youth and families.

“Shaneka Bynum [Hollins class of 2007] was working with Roanoke’s Youth Advocate Programs [YAP] and had reached out to Amber about their need for a digital media content creator,” she recalls. Landry Hernandez had developed considerable skills and experience in content creation as an undergraduate; impressed with her work, Bynum invited her to come aboard.

Throughout Spring Term 2024, Landry Hernandez provided key support for the Hollins Against Period Poverty Initiative (HAPPI), a partnership between Hollins University, Hollins University Black Alumnae, and YAP to benefit YAP’s international sister agency in Sierra Leone. HAPPI seeks to increase awareness about period poverty through education and providing menstrual supplies and financial support to women and girls in the West African nation.

“When I was in high school, I was part of a student-led initiative that created menstrual kits to distribute to local communities in Nepal,” she says. “So, I’d had experience with period poverty awareness and advocacy.”

Landry Hernandez has had an array of responsibilities with the project, including writing newsletter articles, creating a logo for HAPPI, coordinating a sticker sale to raise funds, curating digital content, translating content to Spanish, and much more. “It’s a really important topic and I think it’s cool that a collaboration of this sort came out of this. There is a lot of potential for NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] and historically women’s colleges to work together, especially when it comes to an issue such as period poverty.”

Another significant milestone for Landry Hernandez this semester was the completion of her senior honors thesis, one that encompasses both GWS and IS. “I have been studying and analyzing how U.S. foreign policy has shifted from the late 1800s to the onset of the Cold War, and specifically how U.S. foreign policy deeply altered the trajectory of the Salvadoran Civil War,” she explains. “It is a heavy, heavy international studies thesis, of course, but it also emphasizes people’s experiences, which is where GWS comes into play. Underlying what’s below the surface level of this study – why the countries involved acted in the way they did – is racism, xenophobia, white supremacy, and a culture of essentialism, which are all issues you confront and grapple with in GWS classes.”

Landry Hernandez describes her 70-page thesis as “an intense body of work that may not be easily digestible, so I decided that I really wanted to challenge myself and create a visual component to it to make it more accessible.” To present an immersive and interactive experience where the readers are not passive participants, she transformed her traditional honors thesis format into a zine. “I think it elevates the thesis and makes the information more impactful,” she says, noting that the zine includes annotated declassified documents, news articles from The New York Times, and a series of poems that she wrote.

“We’ve always been taught that there’s a certain way to articulate and express information,” Landry Hernandez explains, “but I personally like taking an unconventional approach. Being a part of Dr. Costa’s classes in particular have shown me that you can make the rules on how you want to relay information, and art is always going to be something that informs my work.”

For someone who is from El Salvador and the United States, the Salvadoran Civil War is a deeply personal topic. “My mother and her siblings grew up in the midst of it,” she says, noting that her specific focus in the thesis is on the El Mozote Massacre, where the Salvadoran military killed an estimated 1,000 people, many of whom were children. “What happened is still something that is very contested and has resulted in a lot of polarizing narratives within El Salvador and I think also within the United States. It took the U.S. about a decade to admit its complicity in this massacre, and that was very much intentional because it’s part of a broader effort to erase, rewrite, and manipulate history.”

Landry Hernandez believes that “doing this thesis is kind of a form of restorative or rehabilitative justice. I’m honoring both my nationalities, but I think I’m also contributing to the memory making process in the 21st century, especially since I am part of the generation that is being raised by children who were in turn brought up during the civil war.”

Even though she doesn’t have immediate plans post-graduation, Landry Hernandez hopes to be “popping in and out of the nonprofit world for at least the next two years” before considering graduate school. She has expressed interest in continuing to intern for YAP as the organization has offices throughout the country; this recent internship has reignited her passion for reproductive justice advocacy.

Ultimately, she says, she wants “to make a publication that centers on women’s identity, queer identity, or just girlhood outside the United States, possible starting with a particular region such as Latin America before crossing the ocean again. What I’d love to do with my GWS and IS degrees is tell stories of people and experiences that often go underreported or are never covered at all. I really would like to delve into the testimonies of children. Their voices tend to get washed out and lost in times of war and genocide.”

Another goal she wants to bring to fruition is “to go back to El Salvador and collaborate with local nonprofit institutes, especially those that are dedicated to memorializing civil war identities. I think I’ll be researching this until the day I die.”