Friday, May 23, 2008

UC Berkeley graduate with autism produces honors thesis on bluegrass music

Joel Sidney

Joel Sidney, 26, graduated from UC Berkeley May 21 "with an almost perfect grade-point average, a bachelor's degree in American Studies, an honors thesis on Bay Area bluegrass music and the certainty that having autism is not going to limit his expectations," reports the San Francisco Chronicle.

"It's been tough," Sidney said. "But I've gotten a lot of help."

Sidney is one of about 700 undergraduates served by Cal's Disabled Students' Program, but one of only six who have autism spectrum disorders, and he's the only one who received his degree in May.

Sidney says he turned his almost 20-year obsession with bluegrass music into an academic endeavor. His senior honors thesis was titled "Innovation and Tradition in Bay Area Bluegrass: Historical Review and Analysis of Distinctive Regional Features" and included a CD he produced with 20 songs by musicians such as Laurie Lewis, David Grisman, Sandy Rothman and Rich Wilbur.

"My fanatical interest in bluegrass began when I was 9 years old," he wrote. "In 1991, my obsession was initially sparked during a concert at the Freight & Salvage Coffee House in Berkeley. ... We sat in the front row and I still recall that the band members appeared immense and seemed to be performing right in front of me for my own benefit."

Christine Palmer, Sidney's faculty adviser and chair of his thesis committee, described his academic finale as "an impressive piece of Bay Area bluegrass historiography and music criticism."

Connie Chiba, Cal's Disabled Students' Program's disability services coordinator, said, "I attribute Joel's success to having the characteristics of any scholar - being passionate about his major, willing to work hard, knowing the resources that he needs to use to succeed, and to being bright and motivated."