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Weaving Social Justice Into Graduate Studies

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 the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences is empowering graduate students to connect their research to social justice issues.

Lupe Davidson smiling outside
Lupe Davidson

“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."

“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.”
— Lupe Davidson, Eberly College’s director and academic coordinator for social justice affairs and Woodburn Professor in Women’s and Gender Studies

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

Sister Rosemary talking while sitting at a table
Sister Rosemary visiting the WVU Morgantown campus

“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

Kathryn Burnham

Kathryn Burnham in front of orange wall

Kathryn Burnham is a fourth-year criminology PhD 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 composed 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. 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.”
— Kathryn Burnham

Anna Davis-Abel

Anna Davis-Abel smiling outside

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. 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.”
— Anna Davis-Abel

Sara Guthrie

Sara Guthrie in front of brick wall

Sara Guthrie is a second-year PhD 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. I hope this program will allow for unique opportunities for collaboration among different disciplines.”
— Sara Guthrie

Melissa Lehrer

Melissa Lehrer smiling in front of a plant

Melissa Lehrer is a fifth-year PhD 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. There should be no discrimination or disadvantage based on financial status.”
— Melissa Lehrer

Mikaela Zimmerman

Mikaela Zimmerman in a hallway

Mikaela Zimmerman is a PhD 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. It is an incredible way to put my passion for social justice to good use.”
— Mikaela Zimmerman

Erin Shelton

Erin Shelton in front of gray background

Erin Shelton is a first-year PhD student in the Department of Communication Studies. The Elkview native’s 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. 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.”
— Erin Shelton

Annette Mackay

Annette Mackay in front of wood wall

Annette Mackay is a PhD 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. I also hope to do meaningful applied research to advance the cause of human rights and equality.”
— Annette Mackay

Gabriella Pishotti

Gabriella Pishotti in front of book case

Gabriella Pishotti is a second-year PhD student in the Department of English. Her research interests include contemporary multiethnic American literature and human rights narratives. Her work focuses on the cross-border experiences of refugees, immigrants and displaced individuals and how different narrative forms can affect 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. 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.”
— Gabriella Pishotti

Valentina Muraleedharan

Valentina Muraleedharan smiling in black and white photo

Valentina Muraleedharan is pursuing a PhD 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. 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.”
— Valentina Muraleedharan

Sharon Reynolds

Sharon Reynolds standing in front of wall with vines

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. I applied for the fellowship to broaden my understanding of social justice and prioritize praxis as the foundation of my academic and political work.”
— Sharon Reynolds