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Student Researcher Finds The Joy of Discovery

Madeline Senter ’25 learns about the past and makes plans for the future

By Debbie Ritenour

Madeline Senter

When Madeline Senter ’25 arrived on the Whitman College campus, they didn’t know what they wanted to do with their life. 

That was part of the appeal of Whitman. Senter knew the small liberal arts college would offer plenty of opportunities to explore their current interests and discover new ones. The Davis, California, native also knew that they wanted to take on the challenge of a double major—but first, they had to determine what those majors would be.

Senter took Introduction to Gender Studies their first semester and quickly decided the subject would be one of their majors. The second, however, remained unclear. Sociology seemed like a good option, but the course they took didn’t spark the same certainty. They then started thinking about majoring in a foreign language. 

Senter had studied abroad in France for their entire junior year of high school, after all, and was taking both French and Spanish classes at Whitman. Majoring in French seemed too obvious, they thought, but Spanish was a possibility.

At the end of their second semester, Senter told Professor of French and Francophone Studies Sarah Hurlburt ’91 their plan: They were going to stop taking French classes and focus solely on Spanish.

“We had a long conversation, and she basically asked me, in a very kind way, ‘What are you doing?’” Senter says with a laugh.

“She knew how much joy I got from speaking French. I sometimes joke that when
I was learning French in France, I was so happy that now I can’t experience any other emotion when I speak it.”

The next semester, Senter declared a Gender Studies and French and Francophone Studies double major. After briefly toying with the idea of adding a third major (“I had to be talked out of it”), they decided to minor in Religion.

A New Passion

Whitman has provided many opportunities for Senter to nurture a wide variety of interests beyond their major and minor studies. They pursued their love for music by enrolling in Chorale and performing in a student-led musical, and they furthered their enthusiasm for education by tutoring elementary school students and serving as the language assistant for two French classes. When Hurlburt approached them about working on the Métis Family Photo Archive research project, they had no idea that they were about to discover yet another passion.


“At first, I was mostly interested in the project because it was an undergraduate research opportunity in the humanities, which is rare. I was also excited about interacting with my major in this way,” Senter says. “My excitement has definitely shifted a lot since then.”

The project involves creating a digital archive of photographs of Métis (mixed French Canadian and Indigenous heritage) families taken in the mid-1800s through the mid-1900s. In addition to analyzing each photo to collect as much information about it as possible and cross-referencing that information with the databases on Ancestry.com, Senter conducts interviews with living descendants Joey Lavadour and Sam Pambrun, who loaned the photos for the project. The Tamástslikt Cultural Institute in Pendleton, Oregon, also provided photos.

“When you work on a project like this, you pour so much care and time and attention into it. It absorbs you and becomes a part of you,” says Senter, who has spent about 300 hours on the project so far. “I am so grateful that I’m able to help these families record their history and do so in a way that hopefully will last for a long time and be accessible to a lot of people.”

A Career in the Making

For Senter, the project has been fascinating—so fascinating, in fact, that they have to stop themself from falling down rabbit holes. “If you’re not careful, you can spend hours and hours and hours trying to figure out one piece of information,” they say. “I’ve done that before. You have to set boundaries.”

While working on the project has helped them strengthen their research and interviewing skills, Senter notes that the professional development they have gained pales in comparison to the personal transformation.

“I came into this project really excited about doing research. I didn’t expect to find myself literally changed by it,” they say. “I think about people in the past—my own family, but also people in general—in a different way. The past is usually framed as something that’s very, very distant and separate from us, and I think that dehumanizes the people who lived in it. I now have greater empathy for them and feel more connected to them.”

The project has also helped Senter discover what they want to do with their life. After graduating from Whitman, they hope to earn a master’s degree in archive studies before beginning a career as a museum archivist.

“I want to be a part of this for a long time,” Senter says. “It makes me really happy.” 

Explore the past: Read more about the Métis Family Photo Archive Project.

Published on Feb 20, 2024
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