This year the students gave us a few topics to choose from. Since two of them are very much related for me, I’m going to combine them.
What would I be doing if I wasn’t professor?
What was my most inspirational experience and what did I learn from it?
I always liked school, reading, learning, and discovering new things, so I went to the University of Houston planning to become an archaeologist. I quickly discovered that I preferred talking to living humans, so I switched my focus to Cultural Anthropology. I was also lucky enough to take a class from Pauline Kolenda. She was an amazing teacher, and I learned a tremendous amount from her and from reading some of the literature on gender in anthropology. Eventually I took several of her classes and was able to travel with her to India (my first fieldwork experience). This inspired me to continue on the path to working on a PhD and becoming a professor.
After I graduated, I still wasn’t 100% sure what I wanted to study, but I went off to Arizona State University, and there I was inspired by my second significant mentor, Robert Alvarez. He introduced me to the power of applied anthropology and the project I did for that class started me down the road of studying inequality and policy. I then moved to the City University of New York to work towards a PhD. My most inspiring moments (and I can’t choose just one) were there. I met an amazing set of graduate students who, unlike me, had come back to graduate school. They had been activists, organizers, held interesting jobs, and traveled more than I had. My dear friend Andrea suggested the child welfare system which was to become my dissertation topic. I learned so much about all the realms that people can work in to create change, I learned a wealth of social theory and analysis. I talked late into the night frequently with students and professors from around the world.
My fieldwork was also inspiring. Again, I met activists and thinkers. I learned about resilience, the transformative power of righteous anger, and the profound strength that comes from people affected by an unjust system coming together to make concrete changes. I was inspired by attorneys who fought for their clients tirelessly and by parents who worked to prove their worth and stay connected to their children.
I learned more than I can ever express, and I was changed. All of my teaching and research are inspired by those New York experiences.
The LAKES REU seems quite different from those experiences, but it’s a natural extension, in both mundane ways—it’s still policy, it’s still a situation where change is needed—and profound ways—powerful students (overwhelmingly women!), coming together, supporting each other, and becoming confident (or expanding their confidence) in their ability to make change. I get to work with amazing fellow mentors and build relationships in the community that is now my home. I can see firsthand the power of organizations and governments working towards change and help document their work.
When I comes to what else I might do, I can’t imagine doing anything else, really. I suppose my alternative universe career would be working as an attorney in a public interest law field. But, in reality, I fit here, and I have a hard time imagining doing anything else. I just hope that my work and my mentoring lives up to the examples set by my fellow LAKES mentors and my own mentors.
In memory of Pauline Kolenda (1928-2014)