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Christina Wang cares about democracy and wants to help others care about it as well. But as a voting rights advocate, she has often faced a pressing quandary: What does democracy mean to each person? Under the mentorship of Professor Nicholas Carnes, she hopes her research can answer that question.

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Christina smiling, trees behind her
Christina Wang's prize-winning thesis is titled "What Do Americans Think Democracy Means?”

Christina is Sanford’s 2024 Best Thesis winner with an Honors Thesis titled "What Do Americans Think Democracy Means?” which includes research that reflects her dedication to understanding democratic principles and amplifying the voices of the American people.

Christina, from Fairfax, VA, is majoring in Political Science and Public Policy at Duke University. Her academic interests span American democracy, political institutions, public opinion, and qualitative methods.

While at Duke, Christina served as a Teaching Assistant for PubPol 155 and is an advocate for civic engagement on campus.

Beyond the classroom, she has been active in several political roles, culminating in a legislative internship for Virginia Congresswoman Jennifer Wexton (VA-10). She hopes to return to DC after her academic career.  

With aspirations for a PhD in political science, Christina aims to contribute to policy research after graduation. Her journey exemplifies a commitment to scholarship, leadership, and the pursuit of positive change in public policy and governance.

Read on to learn more about Christina Wang, her thesis, and what she plans to do next.

 

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Christina hopes to get her PhD in political science.

Q&A with Christina Wang

What is your thesis about?

My thesis investigates what Americans think democracy means. I became interested in this question because we’re seeing concerning signs of democratic backsliding in the US. I hoped that knowing how ordinary Americans think about democracy can help us better understand why we’re seeing the current threats to democracy.

I interviewed 11 groups of people in different regions in my home state of Virginia. I specifically sought out groups that regularly gather of their own accord, since I wanted to understand how people think about democracy in their everyday conversations. I found that there wasn’t any consensus among participants on what democracy means, and that different people understood democracy in different ways. More significantly, I found that participants did not talk about democracy as an isolated, clearly defined concept. They instead talked about democracy in relation to more concrete aspects of their lives, including their personal experiences, topical current events, or their group identities. People construct meanings of democracy that make sense for their own experiences and worldviews.

I hope that this project can inform how researchers think about democracy. When researchers study democracy, they define it using democratic institutions and norms that they find important. However, my findings indicate that many Americans may not understand democracy in the same ways. Researchers should expand their definitions of democracy to incorporate what ordinary Americans think it means. This can offer new insights into how to make democracy work better for all Americans.

Why did you choose Public Policy at Duke?

I’ve known that I wanted to study politics since my freshman year of high school. I’ve always believed that politics has the potential to impact people’s lives for the better. However, the American political system is designed so that it often benefits the most well-off and silences the most vulnerable. I wanted to gain a comprehensive understanding of how the political system works and explore different topics in American politics so I could find what I’m most interested in and where I can make the biggest impact.

The Public Policy major gave the chance to do just that. Sanford’s countless opportunities for undergrads have allowed me to clarify my academic interests and have given me direction and momentum toward what I hope will be a fruitful career. Two stand-out programs that I participated in were the Duke in DC and Honors programs. Through Duke in DC, I got to fulfill a longtime dream of interning on Capitol Hill. The Honors program gave me the support to dive deeply into a topic I’m passionate about and develop invaluable research skills.

Who are your role models?

My biggest role model is probably my thesis advisor, Professor Nick Carnes. I admire Prof. Carnes not only because he works on fascinating and impactful research but also because he maintains a clear work-life balance and always makes time for his students. I’ve worked with Prof. Carnes for over two years now, and he has always been available whenever I had questions about my research or needed a supportive pep talk. He’s also encouraged me to prioritize my personal mindset and well-being while working on a demanding project in a high-pressure environment. I hope to emulate his generosity and balance in all aspects of my life going forward.

What are your next steps after graduating?

I plan to move to DC and work a research job after graduating. I’m not sure exactly what that job will be since I’m still in the middle of the job application process, but I hope to work for a think tank or a nonprofit that focuses on democracy-related issues. I plan on working in DC for 2-3 years before pursuing a PhD in political science.

What is your “dream job”?

I hope to become a professor of political science someday!

What will you miss most about Duke/Sanford?

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christina at Duke Gardens, pond and red bridge in distance
Duke Gardens is a short walk from the Sanford School.

I will miss the freedom that comes with being an undergrad. As an undergrad, you have the flexibility to take classes in so many subject areas and explore topics you’ve never explored before, even if you won’t pursue them in the future. During my time at Duke, I’ve taken classes in neuroscience, philosophy, religion, and psychology, all of which I knew nothing about and probably will not focus on in my career. I’ve loved the ability to learn for learning’s sake.

It will definitely be harder to make time for it once I graduate!

I will also miss the wonderful faculty I’ve had the pleasure of working with at Sanford, and who have supported my intellectual and personal development during my four years as a Public Policy student. I would not be who I am today without their guidance and confidence in me.

Any words of advice for future public policy majors?

Sanford has so many resources available to undergrads. Take advantage of them. If there’s a project you want to work on, Sanford can probably help you make it happen. But these opportunities will not fall into your lap, you need to seek them out yourself. Talk to faculty, go to events, and explore the numerous programs that are open exclusively to undergrads. You can do so much with a Public Policy education, but only if you take the initiative.