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Undergraduate Researchers

Salma WarshannaSalma M. Warshanna, English

The Past That is Always Present: The Role of Memoir in Identity

Faculty Mentor: Robin Farabaugh


Memoir writing is the gold rush of the twenty-first century. While memoir is certainly a mode of self-expression, it is largely crafted for the reader’s understanding. My analytical essay focuses on how the combination of the first-person perspective and a rich description of memories allows memoir to connect to a reader’s sense of self in ways that no other genre can. A quiet dialogue occurs, where the reader is invited to live moments of another life and, more importantly, understand how the past is always present in identity. My research includes an annotated bibliography of a handful of memoirs. For the creative component of the project, I traveled to Egypt, where my parents grew up and the majority of my relatives still reside. Based on my experiences, I wrote a series of creative nonfiction essays that explore my parents’ emigration from Egypt, my relationship with each of them, and how being raised between two cultures has shaped my identity. My semester abroad in the United Kingdom played a crucial role in how I understand my parents and their immigrant experiences, and those explorations are woven into the overarching story of identity.


When and how did you find out that you could do independent research or creative work as a UMBC undergraduate?

I have been a UMBC Writing Center tutor since fall 2008. At the beginning of every semester, the Learning Resource Center had a meeting with all the LRC tutors. Janet McGlynn was always there to talk to us about Undergraduate Research. She emphasized the fact that research isn't just for the science students, and that there are opportunities for students from the humanities to participate as well.

How did you find a mentor and decide on a project?

As early as my freshman year, while taking English 291: Intro to Writing Creative Essays, discovered that my favorite genre to write in is creative nonfiction. The next year, I took English 303: The Art of the Essay with Professor Robin Farabaugh. For my project, I chose a topic that I wanted to explore and could write about endlessly: identity. Because Professor Farabaugh knew my work and always challenged me to grow as a writer, I chose her to be my mentor for my project.

What did you do to make your project a reality?

I applied for the Undergraduate Research Award (URA), which helped fund my two-week trip to Egypt in summer 2010. I took a ton of notes, voice recordings, and pictures. Starting in August, I began meeting with my mentor once a week to discuss my writing and the progress of my project. So far, I have produced about 50 pages of creative writing, plus a research paper about memoir and the relationship between the reader and writer. I also read 8 memoirs and wrote an annotated bibliography.

What has been the hardest part about your research/creative work?

To focus on the process of writing instead of the potential product - a set of high-quality essays and seeing them published one day.

What is your advice to other students about getting involved in research?

Just do it! It's great experience, a great resume booster, and a great way to show potential employers that you are self-motivated and can work independently on a project that you are passionate about.

How did you decide to present your work at URCAD this year?

Because the majority of my project is creative writing, I decided that was what I wanted to share with the audience through an oral presentation. I pieced together segments of my essays to give an overview of my experiences in Egypt and what I wrote about, and chose some of my photographs to complement the story.

Update on Salma:

As a URA Scholar, Salma wrote a series of four creative nonfiction essays titled The Past That Is Always Present. The fourth essay, "What Egypt Has," won an Honorable Mention in the North Colorado Writers 2011 Writing Contest. In December 2011, it will be published in the winners anthology Pooled Ink. The first essay, "The Landscapes Within," was accepted for publication by the Susquehanna Review, the nationally distributed literary magazine of Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania. The essay will be available online and in print.

After graduating Magna Cum Laude, Salma is spending her first summer after UMBC working as a Program Assistant with People to People Ambassador Programs in Arlington, Virginia.