February 28, 2024
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CCPA’s Community Research and Action doctoral students tackle complex global issues

Students in the doctoral program research social justice issues that affect individual neighborhoods to entire populations

Food access in low-income neighborhoods. The relationship between racially segregated neighborhoods and trauma. College readiness and identity among students from rural areas. Economic opportunity among Rohingya refugees in the United States.

What links these issues isn’t a particular topic or discipline, but their sheer complexity. For the past 10 years, students in the Community Research and Action (CRA) doctoral program have tackled a wide range of societal problems, with affected groups ranging from individual neighborhoods to entire populations. Ultimately, its focus is a weighty one: preparing students to improve the world.

The program is highly interdisciplinary, with an emphasis on research methodology that prepares students to ask important questions, explains Associate Professor of Teaching, Learning, and Educational Leadership Loretta Mason-Williams, who has directed the program for the past two years.

According to Mason-Williams, the program’s reliance on data analysis allows graduates to end up in a wide range of roles including university administration, urban planning, research and more.

“The students bring an interdisciplinary perspective in terms of their background and what they have experienced,” she says. “We have students who are social workers, physical therapists, speech language pathologists, teachers, administrators and people in local governance. We have people who have worked internationally in nonprofit arenas.”

Professors from across Binghamton University’s College of Community and Public Affairs (CCPA) teach and mentor students, sometimes in partnership with other University units, such as Decker College of Nursing and Health Sciences and Harpur College of Arts and Sciences. The program’s faculty mentors assist students in finding conferences, workshops and other activities that suit their interests and provide opportunities to share their expertise.

Student research focuses on applications, and their scholarship informs and impacts communities in the real world.

Integrating disciplines

What draws students to the CRA doctoral program is the focus on solving big, complicated questions that go beyond the boundaries of a particular discipline. Often, that’s reflected in their own professional and academic journeys.

Take Montana native Peter Knox, PhD ’22, for example, currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Vermont.

His educational background is mixed, with an undergraduate degree in American history and a Master of Public Administration and Policy from the University of Montana, and another master’s in media communications and public relations from the University of Westminster in London. Before coming to Binghamton, he worked for the University of Montana’s Phyllis J. Washington College of Education, as well as with nonprofits, local schools and community partners, on initiatives such as after-school and alternative education programs.

Tanya McGee, an Elmira, N.Y., native and doctoral candidate, was a full-time urban planner in Chemung County while taking classes at Binghamton. Today, she works for a Fortune 500 tech company’s office for racial equity as a project manager for Black communities in North Carolina.

Then there’s Elise Cain, PhD ’19, a native of Schenevus, N.Y., who earned a bachelor’s degree in biology and a Master in Adolescence Education from St. Bonaventure University, planning to become a secondary school biology teacher. Plans shifted after she fell in love with higher education, and she instead began her career working as a residence hall director. Right before beginning her doctoral program as a full-time student, she was coordinator of leadership programs and campus activities at SUNY Oneonta.

“I always say that my path wasn’t necessarily linear to where I am today, but it makes sense with all the things I was interested in,” says Cain, now an assistant professor of educational leadership at Georgia Southern University. “I think that everything came together to where I am today.”

Coming from further afield is Gamji Rabiu Abu’Ba’are, MA ’17, PhD ’19, who received a bachelor’s degree in planning in his native Ghana before earning a master’s degree in geography at Harpur College and his CRA doctorate at CCPA.

“The greatest strength of the program is that it gives you the leverage to choose what you desire to learn, and it doesn’t have boundaries in terms of the discipline you are coming from,” says Abu’Ba’are, currently an assistant professor in the University of Rochester’s School of Nursing and the inaugural Harriet J. Kitzman Endowed Fellow in Global Health Research.

Rubayat Jesmin, a current student in the program, is a Bangladeshi economist who worked with the European Union on issues related to women and children, private sector development and the Rohingya refugee population.

As an older international student, Jesmin says she found Binghamton supportive and welcoming.

“I have lived one part of my career already,” she says. “Now I want to focus on refugee issues, especially women and children.”

Making sense of complex data

Tackling complicated social problems means navigating big data sets and finding deeper truths using statistical analysis. That can be daunting for students whose backgrounds aren’t heavily math-centric.

Students credit Mason-Williams’ research design class and the work of Assistant Professor of Social Work Kim Brimhall with demystifying quantitative statistics. Professors play a key role in encouraging students and fostering understanding of such diverse areas as research methodology, intersectional feminism and managing secondary trauma.

Students in CRA apply their research skills in a variety of ways. Both Knox and Cain focused on the experiences of rural youth in contemplating college and continue to research related topics today at their respective institutions.

For his dissertation, Abu’Ba’are continued the work he began in his master’s program, focusing on how race, gender, ethnicity and poverty affect food-access in Broome County’s low-income communities. Today, his research is more global in scope; one project deals with healthcare access, HIV and the impact of stigma in low-income communities in West Africa and Italy; he’s looking to embark on a similar project in upstate New York.

Research projects in which CRA students engage are deeply challenging on several levels. For one, they require a massive time commitment, particularly for students juggling full-time employment.

And because they often touch on matters pertinent to social justice, the subject matter can also be heart-wrenching. McGee’s dissertation, for example, focused on how segregated neighborhoods contribute to trauma in Black women. Her qualitative study incorporated interviews from Black mothers living in neighborhoods set apart by race and poverty, all of whom had lost a child due to violence.

“As an urban planner by trade, I am invested in researching disparities in Black communities, because research regarding trauma in these neighborhoods is lacking, and state and local governments have not properly invested in neighborhood services that cater to trauma prevention and remediation,” McGee says. “In my own life, I have witnessed — too many times — the trauma that Black mothers are left to cope with after losing a child to violence and the abandonment that they experience from local government and law enforcement.”

Jesmin, whose project centers on women from the Rohingya community, had her dissertation research upended by the pandemic. She originally intended to conduct it in refugee camps in Bangladesh but has since focused on refugees who live in the United States after migrating through Bangladesh or Malaysia, the conditions of their lives here and how they tackle economic issues.

Despite there being fewer Rohingyas living in the U.S. compared to other immigrant populations, data collection is sorely needed to hone aid efforts. One of the challenges researchers like Jesmin face is that many Rohingyas are reticent to discuss their lives and origins with a stranger, often due to political and religious sensitivity associated with this community.

“As a policymaker with the European Union, I saw that policymakers and humanitarian workers often prepare a program for the beneficiaries. They hardly take into account the on-the-ground factors, the realities of what the beneficiaries are going through,” she reflects. “My main focus is to find what factors really matter to these women, the daily realities they face … so we can help improve their lives and they become active agents in society.”

Making connections

Graduates say the CRA program has confirmed their passion for research that makes a difference in communities, and students have formed lasting relationships with their peers.

Leadership in CRA and from within CCPA has connected students with important networking and employment opportunities, adds McGee. In May 2022, she won state recognition for her research after presenting to New York state leaders during the Future Leaders in Policy Competition.

“We are presented with so many opportunities,” McGee says. “You just have to go after them.”

Posted in: In the World, CCPA