11/13/2012 05:03 pm ET Updated Jan 13, 2013

Potato Chips. Magnolia Petals. Libya.

Flickr: wlcutler

Editor's Note: HuffPost College asked winners of the Undergraduate Awards to write an essay about the personal reasons and ambitions behind their research. Their responses are collected in the Thesis Project.

The process by which I arrived at my paper entitled "Resolution 1973: China's Contradiction or Consistency?" involved extended hours of potato-chip-munching and magnolia-petal-free-fall-watching.

A little backstory before that. There was once a crosstalk I watched as a kid that went roughly like this - "Which is the biggest nation in the world?" "China." (-- in terms of population) "Wrong, it's the United Nations." My ability to get the joke notwithstanding, for quite some time I had taken for granted the role of the UN as some kind of an omnipotent governor of all nations, working its magic whenever things went wrong among its subordinates. And I'm pretty sure that of all the kids who watched the show, I wasn't the only one to think this way.

In the spring of my junior year at Princeton, I attended Professor Robert Keohane's seminar on international institutions and law. The topic I examined was, as part of my task force's research on war crime tribunals, the International Criminal Court (ICC). As it was raining magnolia petals outside the classroom, we engaged ourselves in discussing such gruesome issues as genocide and war crimes. At the time, Libya had just become the second situation (after Darfur, Sudan) referred to the ICC by the UN Security Council. Since our term papers were supposed to evolve from our task force research, I thought it was rather convenient for me to write about the Libya referral for my term paper given my prior research on the ICC.

But there I deviated. I found what led to the Libya referral to be more tantalizing a topic than what happened after. The speculation over how China behaved in the course of the referral was especially intriguing. That China abstained from voting on Resolution 1973, instead of vetoing, took some by surprise. Later as China condemned the West-led intervention in Libya following the referral, they were beyond confused - "If China knew what would happen, why didn't it veto when it'd had the chance to?"

Extrapolating this "puzzle" I sketched out a research proposal and presented it to Professor Keohane. Two interrelated strands of thesis emerged: First, we need to examine the so-called "veto cost" for China, with or without respect to some of the recent norm-building efforts within the UN. This would be a dynamic analysis of China's veto cost over time. Second, given a particular veto cost, whether it was found to be relatively constant or changing in the first part, we then need to identify the contributing factors. This would be a more or less static analysis of the motivations behind the veto cost at a given time. The final product, with four competing hypotheses, didn't' read quite as neat as the outline, but still managed to retain the overall structure that I'd aimed for. The actual writing process, as usual, involved an all-nighter in the library with my dean's-date formula of "potato chips + coke (NB: a type of soda) - sleep."

A month after I'd written my paper, I found myself at the UN Regional Centre for Peace and Disarmament in Africa, witnessing international institutions at work point-blank. It reinforced my classroom learning in such a unique and powerful way that can't be substituted. Looking forward to the UA Summit, I already know that rather than a conclusion of our academic endeavors, it's going to be a commencement, a call for us to relate our academic learning to reality, to make it serve a goal and do something. After all, it's an opportunity for us to remember the context that motivated and gave meaning to our research. Professor Keohane's seminar had no doubt helped clean up the rosy tint on my lens, and one has no reason to feel pessimistic for simply seeing better. The vision gained only constitutes a renewed motivation for action. Yes, I was just writing a term paper about a situation on the other side of the globe, people I'd never met and might never do. But as I loudly munched away potato chips while watching magnolia petals fall in the "orange bubble" of Princeton that insulated us, I did wonder what if - just what if - what we were typing on the computer screen that shielded our blasé state of mind from the real atrocity, could really make a difference - a difference greater than that between an A and a B (that's right, I got an A-).

But before we go on to save the world, let me first work on my two visa applications for the Dublin trip and back which, by now, have taken me longer than writing the winning paper itself. The irony, as our friend Matt from the UA Summit points out, is that I happen to be the winner for, of all categories, "International Relations & Politics".
Coincidence? I think not.

Meicen Sun graduated with Honors from Princeton University where she majored in international relations with a certificate in theater. Her paper "Resolution 1973: China's Contradiction or Consistency?" was originally written for Robert O. Keohane's seminar on international institutions and international law in her junior year. She is a native of Xiamen, China. Read more about the Undergraduate Awards.