Cross-Cutting Political Research Motivates Graduate Student
“The events of 9/11 were a formative experience for my generation,” says Melinda R. Tarsi, a fifth year PhD student in the Department of Political Science. Since 9/11, Tarsi has watched many friends enter and serve in the military. Once their terms were up, Tarsi also watched these same friends leave the military and start to utilize many of the benefits designed to support veterans. “I quickly became interested in what appeared to be a parallel welfare state,” Tarsi reflects. “I wanted to understand how it developed alongside our traditional ‘welfare’ system, how it was framed and discussed, and how it influenced civil-military relations.”
Tarsi, who defines her research as a blend of American politics, political history, and civil-military relations, is in the midst of investigating these civil and military welfare states with research at many historical archives. “I am analyzing changes in rhetoric among presidents and congressional leaders and committees, as well as among interest groups both for and against welfare expansion,” Tarsi says. She hopes her research will contribute to the American political development tradition and explain more fully how history has shaped current political realities.
Moreover, her research will help to highlight many of the underlying political processes often overlooked in considerations of both a military and welfare state and answer important questions about civil-military relations: What can universal welfare advocates learn from the expansion of military benefits, and vice versa? Are there benefits to keeping the two welfare streams separate or in pulling them closer together? Has the development of either set of aid syphoned off benefits for other groups? “Americans today are generally supportive of military benefits,” Tarsi says, “But they are less supportive of the more general social welfare offered to civilians. I am anxious to uncover where the paths of these two trajectories have intersected and/or influenced each other.”
Recently, Tarsi presented a piece of her preliminary research at the annual International Studies Association conference. This research showed how geography and personal connections to the military influenced attitudes toward military spending. “Those with a personal connection to the military were more likely to support increased defense spending,” Tarsi reports, “yet having a military base in their district did not matter.” The results suggested that personal relationships mattered more than economic interest and served as a starting point for more in-depth, archival research. “I want to understand the multiple lenses through which people view the military,” she says.
Although the questions about civil-military relations have occupied much of Tarsi’s time over the past ten years, the thought of turning this interest into a formal research program was barely on her agenda as recently as six years ago. As a first-generation undergraduate student at Western Connecticut State University (WCSU), Tarsi rarely considered the possibility of a graduate education. She was working full time while balancing a full course load, and the thought of continuing that schedule seemed unrealistic. However, Tarsi was fortunate enough to find an exceptional mentor at WCSU. “Dr. Christoper Kukk helped me realize that the kinds of questions I was asking – why do people become involved in political issues? How do we reconcile international events with domestic politics? – could be explored through the lens of political science,” Tarsi reflects. This mentorship experience reinforced her passion about political science as a discipline, and pushed her to pursue graduate training. “I became excited at the prospect of not only becoming an educator, but also continuing in my role as a student of politics,” she says.
As a “student of politics,” Tarsi chose UMass because of the diversity of political science perspectives supported here: “I wanted to be in a department where faculty would encourage scholarship across traditional subfield lines and be open to different methodological approaches.” In fact, one of the things which sets the department apart is its commitment to research that spans the boundaries of the traditional subfields of political science. The department has created new opportunities for students and faculty to substantially engage with each other, and it has fostered an environment where a broad range of methodological and epistemological approaches can flourish together: “My favorite experiences have been workshopping my ideas with faculty and fellow graduate students,” Tarsi says. “Getting feedback on my work from a variety of perspectives – and getting the chance to see what everyone else is working on – is always very motivating.”