Newswise — A group of students, studying everything from criminology to creative writing, are working together to make a difference and find purpose in their careers.  

A new Social Justice Research Fellowship in West Virginia University’s Eberly College of Arts and Sciences is empowering graduate students to connect their research to social justice issues.  

“I wanted to give graduate students a chance to discuss social justice issues, be in community with one another and also to think beyond the classroom,” said Lupe Davidson , the Eberly College’s director and academic coordinator for social justice affairs and a Woodburn Professor in Women’s and Gender Studies. “If you are an academic who is engaged and passionate about social justice, you are always seeking ways to interact with the community.”  

The inaugural cohort of 10 fellows represents a wide range of disciplines, from biology and geography to English and sociology.  

“I am excited about this program and believe it will greatly enhance the professional socialization of our graduate students,” said Gregory Dunaway, dean of the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences. “We are very fortunate that Professor Davidson is leading this initiative.”

The fellows are working with Davidson to co-create the program. 

“They are on the ground floor helping to define the parameters of the program,” Davidson said. “We are discussing what it means to frame their research for the external world and create outward-facing research profiles because it’s really important to navigate online space in the digital age. Student voices and ideas are critical to the success of this program."   

They meet monthly for professional development activities, including research presentations and mock interviews to prepare to enter the job market.

“I want the students to have opportunities to meet with leaders throughout the University and the community because as a graduate student it’s really important to make connections beyond your academic department,” Davidson said. “I am trying to introduce them to the diverse world of the academy. There are a lot of ways that you can plug in outside of being a professor.”

The 2019-2020 Eberly College Social Justice Fellows include:

Kathryn Burnham

Kathryn Burnham is a fourth-year criminology Ph.D. student and research assistant in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology . Her research focuses on social cannabis as well as sexual assault on college campuses. She and several graduate student colleagues founded WVU’s Think Tank for Social Research on Cannabis. As a first-generation college student from a low-income background, Burnham also spends her time mentoring undergraduate students in how to conduct research, present at conferences and apply to graduate schools.  

“To me, social justice is comprised of four components – awareness, advocacy, applied research and an intense and unwavering orientation toward working to build a society in which all people can, not only have their needs met, but thrive,” Burnham said. “I believe change is achievable if given the right context. I'm hoping that the contributions of this program will improve the lives of WVU students.” 

Anna Davis-Abel

Anna Davis-Abel is pursuing Master of Fine Arts in creative nonfiction writing. Her graduate coursework has revolved around issues of gender, sexuality and language, and she is writing a memoir that explores these themes through the lens of her coming of age in the Deep South.  

“In my work, social justice manifests in using language and narrative to shine a light on often-overlooked problems in our society and to humanize the problems in such a way that people feel ignited for change,” Davis-Abel said. “I want to learn how to best utilize my strengths and skills to make sure my voice is heard. I am also eager to have the chance to discuss the problems I’m writing about with people from other backgrounds and walks of life. It is my hope that by getting their input, I will become aware of any areas of the narrative where my own privilege blinds me from recognizing different interpretations.” 

Sara Guthrie

Sara Guthrie is a second-year Ph.D. student in sociology. She works as a graduate research assistant in the   School of Social Work’s Rural Integrated Behavioral Health Training Program. Her research interests include political and rural sociology with a focus on social movements and gender and sexuality.

“I applied for the fellowship because I believe it is important to solve societal problems through an interdisciplinary approach,” Guthrie said. “I hope this program will allow for unique opportunities for collaboration among different disciplines.” 

Melissa Lehrer

Melissa Lehrer is a fifth-year Ph.D. student in the Department of Biology studying the impacts of drought on the grain crop Sorghum bicolor. After graduation, she hopes to continue teaching at a small liberal arts college.

“Given how my research lays the groundwork to limit the socioeconomic impacts of drought, to me, social justice is defined as the equal distribution of resources and goods to individuals across all socioeconomic levels,” Lehrer said. “There should be no discrimination or disadvantage based on financial status.”  

Annette Mackay

Annette Mackay is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology. Her research examines the influence of public-private partnerships in neighborhood reinvestment and gentrification in Pittsburgh. She is a member of the Think Tank for Social Research on Cannabis and is active in political action groups supportive of voter rights, environmental justice and common-sense gun legislation.

“I look forward to engaging in an interdisciplinary fellowship that examines social justice from different perspectives,” Mackay said. “I also hope to do meaningful applied research to advance the cause of human rights and equality.” 

Valentina Muraleedharan

Valentina Muraleedharan is pursuing a Ph.D. in geography. She studies the role of faith and spirituality in social movements and community-building efforts concerning marginalized populations facing dispossession, environmental racism and cultural displacement in both urban and rural contexts. As a ‘third culture’ woman of color — half Indian, half Persian and born-and-raised in Botswana — Muraleedharan moved to the U.S. as a young adult.

“My research has been deeply shaped by my positionality and (un)belonging in these places and spaces,” Muraleedharan said. “I applied for the fellowship to join a community of thinkers and doers who are committed to advancing social justice and social change through research.”  

Gabriella Pishotti

Gabriella Pishotti is a second-year Ph.D. student in the Department of English. Her research interests include contemporary multi-ethnic American literature and human rights narratives. Specifically, her work focuses on the cross-border experiences of refugees, immigrants and displaced individuals and how different narrative forms can impact the dissemination and reception of these stories as well as influence human rights conversations. She is involved in the Appalachian Prison Book Project and is the organization’s media coordinator.

“I believe social justice work is most successful when it is collaborative, and this program offers the unique opportunity of being able to work with and learn from other students from a variety of disciplines,” Pishotti said. “Because of this, I believe the program will help us to examine social justice from new perspectives, better preparing us with tools to actively incorporate its work into our research, teaching and community involvement.”

Sharon Reynolds 

Sharon Reynolds is a first-year Master of Fine Arts student in creative writing with a focus on poetry. She aspires to write, teach and organize with the intention of eradicating barriers to education and creative practice.

“I define social justice as the tender intersection of love and rage, the active redistribution of intellectual and material resources and a collective, empathetic reverence for heterogeneity of all kinds,” Reynolds said. “I applied for the fellowship to broaden my understanding of social justice and prioritize praxis as the foundation of my academic and political work.”Erin Shelton  Erin Shelton is a first-year Ph.D. student in the Department of Communication Studies from Elkview. Her research involves communication accommodation in mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationships, family communication about stigmatic deaths, communication surrounding substance use and abuse and the socialization of prejudice in the family. 

“I define social justice as the consideration and celebration of difference in our society, keeping in mind the ways in which individuals’ various intersecting identities challenge and/or privilege them in order to ensure equal opportunity for all people,” Shelton said. “As an Eberly College Social Justice Research Fellow, I believe that in focusing my own research on issues of social justice and seeking out opportunities to be guided by individuals of diverse backgrounds and disciplines, I can help move forward my field and all of academia in areas of diversity and inclusion.”

Mikaela Zimmerman

Mikaela Zimmerman is a Ph.D. student studying sociology from central Pennsylvania. Her research focuses on cross-cultural communication and conflict exploration as well as attitudes toward public spending. After graduation, she hopes to pursue a career in government, public policy research and consulting. 

“This fellowship is an opportunity to work with like-minded peers and colleagues to build a network of social responsibility at the University,” Zimmerman said. “It is an incredible way to put my passion for social justice to good use.”

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