By Emilia Wisniewski (COM’25)
Going into her junior year, Isabel Mullens (CAS’23, KHC’23) was tasked with designing her keystone research project, which is required of every student in the Kilachand Honors College. She wanted to dedicate her project to two important aspects in her life: her upbringing and her education.
Mullens spent the formative years of her life in Switzerland attending Zurich International School, where she developed a knack for mathematics that turned into a love for economics. When it came time to choose where she would continue her education, she always had the feeling that she would leave Switzerland to study in the United States, where her parents had originally emigrated from.
She first set foot in the U.S. when she arrived at Boston University to study economics and mathematics, eventually taking on the dual degree BA/MA program at the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.
“It felt like I didn’t have to choose between those two things, and I could do both of them and it felt so perfect,” Mullens said. “I’ve had a lot of chances to engage in research while I’ve been here, which has definitely been beneficial.”
When tasked with completing her Kilachand project, Mullens wanted to combine her economics studies with her unique educational background. She decided to dedicate her project to comparing the schooling systems in the U.S. and Switzerland using data sets, focusing on the end goal of understanding the factors that affect transfer rates to Gymnasium, an academically-selective public upper-secondary school in Switzerland.
The project is “open-ended,” allowing students to adapt their final product to a medium that best suits the desired outcome, including using video, multimedia, or even a play.
“I think because of my academic background in the field of economics, I was definitely more inclined towards a more traditional route of a paper,” Mullens said. “Part of me sometimes wishes I chose to do something more creative but at the same time I loved my experience, so I can’t complain.”
For the project, she had the help of Senior Economics Lecturer Ishita Dey, who Mullens met during her sophomore year after taking Dey’s “Economics of Education” class.
“It’s so cool to now get to work with her as my advisor on a project at the intersection of those two fields,” Mullens said. “I’m so grateful to her for her support throughout this project, but also her support throughout my college experience.”
A major challenge she initially faced in her project was finding sets that answered the question she was seeking out: how low-income or foreign students affect the transfer rates of Gymnasium in Switzerland.
She ended up creating her own novel, district-level data set that combined information she found from Zurich online portals, describing the number of students, class sizes and transfer rates to Gymnasium.
Through the data set, she found four key factors that affected transfer rates: the percentage of immigrant students, the percentage of low-income students, the class size and the total population of the district. The most interesting one she found was that the higher the percentage of non-native students in an area, the higher the transfer rate to Gymnasium was.
“It’s been really exciting putting it all together,” Mullens said.
In addition to her academic paper, Mullens compiled her findings on a poster board that she presented at the Keystone Symposium on April 29. She gave a two-minute presentation early Saturday morning about the biggest findings in her research.
“I’m just excited to teach people about the Swiss school system,” Mullens said before the Symposium. “I’m really curious to hear about other people’s opinions on the differences in school systems, and perhaps encourage some reflection about the U.S. school systems and how effective they are, if there could be effective changes.”
Mullens learned much more from the project besides school systems; she also learned how to set deadlines for a project that is entirely independent. She advised future KHC seniors embarking on their projects to not be afraid to “pivot” their research and to be endlessly curious when going through the process.
“My biggest takeaway is that diversity in students is so important and can enrich educational systems wherever they are,” Mullens said. “I hope that educational opportunities continue to be available to students from all backgrounds.”