Fusing Extracurricular and Academic Interests as a Culmination of Undergraduate Career

Sydney Mullaney throwing curling stone

Sydney Mullaney has been interested in history and social sciences since childhood. She found it particularly fascinating how much power the US has had throughout time and how global power scales can tip when other countries emerge with more power. Now, she is a senior in the University Honors Program double majoring in political science and strategic communications, and a professional curler on the USA Curling National team. Mullaney has combined her passions for her thesis project: under which conditions does hosting the Olympic Games translate into increased soft power for emerging nations.

The idea for Mullaney’s thesis project came from her Honors Advisor, who thought she should focus on her unique aspirations and match her extracurricular and research interests by exploring the Olympics and Olympic politics. 

Her positions as a student and curler afford her a unique perspective on these subjects and how they intersect. Mullaney chose her specific research topic because she feels like we are in a relatively peaceful time globally, compared to modern history. “It’s interesting to look at countries who want to make a name for themself and how they’re doing that when it’s not using hard power,” said Mullaney. “A lot of it’s just perspective and understanding how people live differently in different countries, and how personal experiences are different in different countries, and why that is.”

For her research, Sydney is advised by Dr. Fazal, whom she met through the Distinguished Undergraduate Research Program. To determine if hosting the Olympics is an effective manner for emerging nations to increase their soft power Mullaney is looking at case studies, with particular focus on Beijing 2008, Brazil 2016, and Pyeongchang 2018. She is going to determine under which conditions hosting these massive sporting events are beneficial in increasing the emerging nation’s soft power.

Sydney Mullaney and teammates holding American flag.
Mullaney and teammates at Lake Placid 2023 Winter World University Games.

In recent years, there has been public debate on why countries may want to host these events, due to their high cost and possible negative impact on the host country. The negatives of hosting these events, to Mullaney, are so blatant and easy to cover in the media. However, she also understands why countries are willing to risk their money and reputation. “There’s sort of this underlying magic of the Games, which I recognize I might be biased because of my love for curling,” said Mullaney. “But there really is a reason this event has gone on for hundreds and hundreds of years; it really ties together the world for a few weeks every few years.”

Due to her experiences both at UMN and as a professional curler, Mullaney has a unique perspective on her research. The first aspect to this perspective is Mullaney’s frequent travels for curling and experiences competing in Canada, China, and all across Europe. As a result of her travels, Mullaney has cultivated a global perspective and increased interest in putting an international lens on her studies.

Adding to her unique perspective is Mullaney’s understanding of where academia exists in the broader scope of a student’s life. “I think it’s really easy to be sheltered into your whole life at college and in classes, or something you have to do, because you have to get this degree,” reflected Mullaney. By having two passions with separate but equally important goals, Mullaney has cultivated a distinct view on working towards academic success and how to achieve that with, and separately from, other aspects of her life. “I want to produce this work, to be proud of it, and have it be a culmination of my undergraduate career.”

Sydney and her teammates competed at the Lake Placid 2023 Winter World University Games from January 12-22, where they earned the bronze medal.


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