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When her parents decided to have her 97-year-old grandmother, Lottie, move into their home several years ago, Amy Levinson ’05 (Orinda, Ca.) wanted to know why.

“I assumed it was more natural that when people lived to a certain age and needed assistance with living, they move into a home,” says Levinson, a double major in anthropology & sociology and religious studies. “I know it’s not the most heartfelt response, but it was my reaction.”

Since her grandmother lives with her parents, she still has the opportunity to practice Jewish rituals and celebrate the holidays that she was raised with and cherishes.

In her quest for departmental honors, Levinson, a member of the women’s soccer team, is applying her personal experience of living with a grandparent to a senior thesis on the role religion plays in the lives of America’s elderly. She will present her findings at the National Conference on Undergraduate Research hosted April 20-23 by Virginia Military Academy and Washington & Lee University.

Her research examines differences between Judaism and Buddhism in regard to what each religion teaches in its texts and says about the treatment of elderly people, and whether the guidelines are followed.

“What I’ve found so far is that the good intentions of these guidelines still exist and are still taught, but unfortunately, when it comes to actions, they are lacking,” she says.

Levinson says that even elderly people are unwilling to voice the message that they are important and should be respected. Instead, this society is more likely to place those unable to care for themselves in an assisted care facility or nursing home.

“It is expected that most facilities will have some sort of religious space, whether it’s a room or a chapel where a priest, a rabbi, or some sort of religious figure can come in and help residents to practice their faiths,” says Levinson. “But there are always greater issues. Unfortunately, many times those issues involve costs and the facility can’t afford to have space set aside for its members to practice their faiths as much at they’d like to.”

Levinson’s thesis adviser, Eric J. Ziolkowski, Charles A. Dana Professor and head of religious studies, says her research topic should advance knowledge in the field.

“She’s doing work that is highly original and raises original questions,” Ziolkowski says. “When people talk about religion and the life cycle, they often talk about religion and death, but aging and the phase leading up to death doesn’t receive as much attention. Examining the aging process is what I find particularly original and exciting about her work.”

Ziolkowski believes the issue being examined by Levinson is extremely relevant.

“The whole question of how the aged are regarded and how they are to be treated in society is a sensitive question, and as many people have observed in our society, things aren’t always set up to make people during the latter portion of their lives feel like full members of society,” he explains. “It is nice to have a student look at this with a fresh set of eyes.”

He adds that her tendency to think in unique ways aids her study of a question that most people her age would not focus on.

“It’s not just a matter of someone who wants to be a maverick, it’s just something very natural to her,” he says. “She formulates a view and doesn’t really care if everyone else agrees with her, and that’s a sign of someone who can do really exciting work.”

Levinson hopes her thesis spotlights a disconnect that people do not always see.

“As far as any changes that occur, I hope they revolve around weighing the significance of faith throughout a person’s life,” she says.

Levinson’s research could lay the groundwork for even higher-level research, Ziolkowski notes.

“It allows her to use her skills of textual analysis, fieldwork, and the skills that she honed in pursuing both her majors,” he says. “In that sense, it’s a way of tying the two areas together with a topic that means something to her. If she decides to go to graduate school and pursue a master’s or Ph.D. in either anthropology or religious studies, this is the sort of thesis that would provide the basis for further research.”

Levinson believes that the research reaffirms her need to engage in a variety of subjects to have a well-rounded education.

“From having a broader understanding of so many different areas and aspects, I think they will open so many more doors than if I would have studied just one area,” she says. “I don’t feel trapped in one area of the world like there’s only one type of career that I will end up with.”

Levinson has been more than pleased with the areas she has studied at Lafayette.

“The greatest strength of both anthropology & sociology and religious studies, in my opinion, is not just the relationships that can be formed within such small departments, but the passion and excitement with which all the professors I have encountered choose to convey their lessons,” she says.

Levinson is vice president of finance for Delta Delta Delta sorority and Student Government’s associate representative for the Teaching and Learning Committee, the Library Advisory Committee, and the Athletics Committee. She has served as the women’s soccer representative on the Student Athlete Advisory Committee and as a representative to the Residence Hall Council. A member of Hillel Society and Emile Durkheim Society, Levinson has volunteered at the Boys and Girls Club in Easton, Habitat for Humanity, AIDs and Breast Cancer walks, and in a peer mentoring program for Lehigh Valley Magic. She graduated from Miramonte High School.

Author of the books Evil Children in Religion, Literature, and Art, A Museum of Faiths: Histories and Legacies of the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions, and The Sanctification of Don Quixote: From Hidalgo to Priest, Ziolkowski has also written more than 20 articles for publication in various books and journals. He has presented the Rabbi Moses Margolis Memorial Endowment Lecture at The State University of New York and been a Life Fellow in the Society for the Arts, Religion, and Culture since 1997.

Honors thesis projects are among several major opportunities at Lafayette that make the College a national leader in undergraduate research. Lafayette sends one of the largest contingents to the National Conference on Undergraduate Research each year. Thirty-nine students have been accepted to present their work at last year’s annual conference.

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