Each summer, Lafayette College students have the opportunity to participate in academically meaningful experiences outside the classroom. Students selected as EXCEL Scholars engage in collaborative research projects with Lafayette faculty, enhancing their academic skills as well as developing other skills that will be useful in post-graduate education and careers. This summer, we are highlighting several scholars who are working on hands-on, collaborative research projects with faculty and other students.

Samantha Semsel '25 searches through books in Skillman Library


Student researcher: Samantha Semsel ’25
Major(s): Government and law and philosophy
Advisor: Jorge Torres, associate professor of music 


Why I chose this topic

What really interested me is being aware how music, especially in certain societies, differentiated classes and set one class of people apart from another. For example, Thomas Jefferson was an avid violinist and came from southern Virginia society, but with that hobby came European glamor. There were presidents who didn’t play any music, but they learned to shoot rifles and ride horses—while other presidents went to private schools, came from wealthy families, and were able to do things that other people couldn’t do. Also, another thing that interested me is how music was used to sway public opinion of some presidents. For example, Bill Clinton played the saxophone to try to make people relate to him and vote for him, because that side of him made him appear more personable. Richard Nixon actually loved music so much that he composed classical music. Finally, I considered what sociopolitical aspects fall into interest in music? For example, why has it been socially acceptable for certain musical performers to come to the White House either to perform or to appear for an event? Why has it been controversial for some music to be played at the White House? There were some presidents who introduced dancing to the White House, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, that was considered risqué or taboo.

What appealed to you about doing summer research for this project?

I’m a government and law major, and I also play flute and piano. I get to spend 25 hours a week researching topics I’m really interested in. I’ve known since eighth grade that I wanted to gravitate toward the law, and this is a really interesting way to examine the ways that government and music overlap. Being an EXCEL Scholar is so interesting because I’m getting the opportunity to be paid for research I’d actually be looking at on my computer, on my own, if I weren’t part of this project. 

“I’ve also uncovered information that has taught me about political strategy, in terms of certain performers who have been invited to the White House. For example, [pop star] Olivia Rodrigo was invited to the White House [during President Biden’s term] to speak about the importance of the COVID-19 vaccine. It was a political strategy to connect to a younger audience.

Will you be continuing the research beyond this summer? 

Yes, I’ll continue to balance the research with my classes once the new semester starts.

What other interesting facts have you uncovered that may be included with the book research?

It’s hard to isolate this information and make it just about the presidents. So, we do look at the first family and if the presidents’ wives and children had musical interests or musical backgrounds. For instance, George Washington’s granddaughter, Nellie Custis, was very proficient on the piano. We’re also looking at how companies that created musical instruments got their products into the White House. James Madison never played the flute, but he was gifted a crystal flute by Claude Laurent, who was an influential flute maker. Then, the modern flute became heavily influenced by that flute maker.


Hands-on Research

Lafayette's EXCEL Scholar Program

Lafayette's EXCEL Scholars program allows students to work closely and collaboratively with faculty on significant research projects that hone critical-thinking and communication skills

Learn more
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