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Research Changes Lives

How UNCP provides a pathway to graduate school for students from underrepresented minority groups

By Ben Dedman

October 24, 2021

In 2019, when her father was interviewed by the Fayetteville Observer, Jessica Muñiz didn’t realize that it could change her future.

The newspaper interviewed her dad, a US Army Staff Sergeant from Puerto Rico, about the Hispanic Heritage Month celebrations at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, where he was stationed. Soon after the article was published, he received an unexpected message.

“A woman named Dolores Samons Harvell, whose family lived on land that eventually became Fort Bragg, told him the story of Puerto Rican laborers who built Camp Bragg in 1918,” Muñiz says. Since that initial conversation, Muñiz has interviewed Harvell multiple times, visited laborers’ graves at Fort Bragg, and traveled to historical archives in several states. In the process, she helped to uncover a tragic—and relatively unknown—chapter of American history during World War I.

“Because of labor shortages, Puerto Rican workers were promised free housing, a meal plan, and a living wage,” Muñiz says. Not only were these promises not kept, but “because of their labor conditions, they were vulnerable to the ‘Spanish flu’ outbreak in 1918, and many died.”

Muñiz, a senior majoring in history at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke (UNCP), is pursuing her research through the university’s Research, Engagement, Action, Community, Humanities (REACH) fellowship. Established in 2019 through a Mellon Foundation grant, REACH provides training, mentorship, and funding to support pathways to graduate school for juniors and seniors from underrepresented minority groups.

“The REACH program offers a unique experience to undergraduate students interested in pursuing a future academic career,” says Jamie Mize, assistant professor of history and American Indian Studies and director of REACH. “This is all about helping them get to that next step.”

REACH provides funding for small cohorts of ten to fifteen fellows to conduct research site visits across the United States, offset the cost of applying to graduate school (including entrance exams and application fees), and attend conferences to present their research.

“REACH truly exemplifies UNCP’s motto, ‘Changing lives through education,’” Mize says. “The fellows are amazing, and I feel very privileged that I get to work with them.”

Each summer, the REACH fellowship kicks off with an intensive two-week retreat. While the COVID-19 pandemic forced the 2020 summer retreat to rely on Zoom, the 2021 retreat included in-person workshops on archival research and institutional review board (IRB) processes. The students spoke with several scholars to learn research methods in a variety of disciplines, and Mize led the fellows on field trips to the Civil Rights Museum in Greensboro, North Carolina, and the State Archive in Columbia, South Carolina.

It was the first time that Muñiz had ever been in a historical archive. “There are special things that you need to know to request files that are relevant to your research,” Muñiz says. “Not everyone gets to do that for the first time with a scholar like Dr. Mize. I was grateful that I was able to learn how to be a historian with guidance from a historian.”

Toward the end of the retreat, fellows hone their research skills by collaborating on an oral history project. This year, Mize partnered with Mary Ann Jacobs, chair and associate professor of American Indian studies, to coordinate a project about the Lumbee Tribe in North Carolina. REACH students interviewed several colleagues of Julian Pierce, an attorney and Lumbee civil rights activist who was murdered in 1988. During a long career, Pierce worked to provide legal aid, create a medical center, and gain government recognition for the Lumbee Tribe. The interviews will be housed in the Museum of the Southeast American Indian at UNCP, serving as a repository for future research.

After the retreat, REACH fellows begin their yearlong individual research projects with ongoing guidance from a faculty mentor in their discipline. “The mentors model what it is to be an academic outside of the classroom,” Mize says.

Throughout the fall and spring, fellows gather together monthly to discuss their research and attend workshops on compiling graduate school application packets, networking with graduate school faculty members, and presenting their research at conferences. Though there is no official coursework for REACH, some fellows receive course credits through independent studies with their mentors, while others use the research to complete degree requirements such as a thesis or capstone.

Below, five of this year’s REACH fellows describe their research projects, which explore a variety of topics ranging from substance abuse in the military, to the folk ballads of Woody Guthrie, to the incarceration of Native American people.

Dana Hunt-Locklear: Artwork from the Holocaust

Dana Hunt-Locklear, a senior majoring in studio art and minoring in history, is creating an exhibit of art created in concentration camps during the Holocaust.

Originally, she intended to focus on art created by persecuted Jewish populations. “I realized there were a lot of groups that I was leaving out: queer people, people of color, and disabled people,” Hunt-Locklear says. “Being a Native American, as a product of genocide, what happened in the Holocaust really hits home for me. I understand how dangerous it is when you dehumanize a victim of something like that.”

Though Hunt-Locklear has discovered a lot of art created in World War II concentration camps, many of the artists did not survive and their names and stories remain unknown. However, some survivors did save large portfolios of art that they created while imprisoned in concentration camps. With the help of her faculty mentor, Beata Niedzialkowska, assistant professor of art history, Hunt-Locklear has identified and translated archives in Europe and the United States. After the summer retreat, she also traveled to Washington, DC, to study exhibits at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

“I wanted to utilize art as a storytelling method,” Hunt-Locklear says. “When people learn about the Holocaust, sometimes they hear big numbers, and it’s just too much to take in. But if people see firsthand accounts of what happened, they can see these were real people that experienced this.”

After graduation, Hunt-Locklear will pursue a graduate degree in video game concept design. “I come from a single-parent, low-income family,” she says. “I would not have been able to apply to as many grad schools as I wanted to if I was paying out of pocket.”

Hannah Irving: Substance Abuse among Military Veterans

Hannah Irving, a junior majoring in sociology and political science, is examining how veterans have used alcohol to cope with the stressors of military life.

“My husband is in the US Army, and I’ve seen firsthand how a lot of enlisted members really struggle with tobacco and alcohol,” Irving says. “How can we change the way that we approach substance use for people in the Army? I’m hoping to find ways that this can change in a progressive manner.”

Because Irving’s research requires interviews with veterans, she is working closely with her faculty mentor, E. Brooke Kelly, assistant chair of the sociology and criminal justice department, to get IRB approval. After she conducts the interviews, Irving will remove identifying information about the veterans, examine the transcripts, and code the data to find common themes among the responses.

Though Kelly provides support whenever Irving needs it, the project is open-ended and self-directed. “That has been a little bit of a struggle for me because I’m used to getting clear guidelines for projects,” Irving says. “But it’s been a really great place for me to grow.”

After graduating, Irving plans on studying business and contractual law. Every law school she is considering has an application fee between $100 and $150. “There are so many financial barriers in higher education,” Irving says. “I can’t express how grateful I am for the REACH program for helping me and other people who might not have been able to otherwise have these opportunities.”

Jessica Muñiz: Migrant Worker Experiences during COVID-19 and World War I

Jessica Muñiz, a senior majoring in history, was the only student to apply for both the 2020–21 and 2021–22 REACH cohorts.

Since her first year at UNCP, Muñiz has studied migrant communities in North Carolina. “When COVID hit, I knew that it probably exacerbated a lot of the inequities for migrant farmworkers in their workplace,” she says.

For her first REACH project, she developed a virtual social justice exhibit that combines interviews with staff at organizations that support farmworkers and archival video and photo footage. Her exhibit explores how workers’ lives changed due to the pandemic and how federal and state governments have failed to provide protective equipment for vulnerable communities. In spring 2021, REACH funded her travel to two conferences to present her research.

For the second project, Muñiz is learning more about Puerto Rican laborers during World War I. “I connected their graves at Fort Bragg to a larger war work project,” Muñiz says, in which tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans were hired to work across the southern United States. In Arkansas, Muñiz found a historical marker commemorating Puerto Rican workers who died from the flu pandemic and unsafe work conditions. She hopes to erect a similar monument at Fort Bragg.

After graduating, Muñiz will pursue a PhD in public history, continuing her research on Puerto Rican workers during World War I.

“The most important part of the REACH program is how it empowers students to do their own research,” Muñiz says. “Impostor syndrome is especially strong in minority communities. REACH does a good job of telling students, ‘You are capable of being a scholar.’”

Natalia Sarmiento: The Ballads of Woody Guthrie

Natalia Sarmiento, a junior majoring in history and geography, is creating a geographical story map about ballads that folk singer Woody Guthrie wrote about Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, Italian immigrants who were wrongfully executed in the 1920s for murder.

Sarmiento intended to travel to Oklahoma to visit Guthrie’s hometown and speak to his daughter, Nora. But due to COVID-19 restrictions, she canceled the trip and has to rely on long-distance communication. Because Guthrie’s daughter is still alive, Sarmiento must ask her for permission to use any of his songs, journal entries, or other writings. She also has been working with the Woody Guthrie Center to gain access to their collections. “I have to constantly ask for copyright permission,” she says.

Her mentor, Michele Fazio, professor of English and gender studies, has been instrumental in helping her access primary sources, public records, and articles about Guthrie’s life and music. “She is Italian American, and her family is from New York, so she has a connection to the story about Sacco and Vanzetti,” Sarmiento says.

After graduation, Sarmiento wants to get a master’s degree in archaeology. Through the REACH program, she is learning archival research methodologies, practicing her skills with geographic information systems, and preparing to present her research at conferences next spring.

She has especially enjoyed learning from the other fellows in her cohort during the summer retreat and their monthly meetings. “Everybody is so supportive,” Sarmiento says. “We all have such different research objectives, but we listen to each other’s ideas and how we are approaching them. And we pretty much just have fun with it.”

Zachary Young: Incarceration among Native Americans

Zachary Young, a senior majoring in mass communications and minoring in American Indian studies, is examining support structures that can help incarcerated Native Americans transition back to civilian life.

“I wanted to stay away from race in my research, but I realized that was impossible,” Young says. As a member of the Lumbee Tribe in North Carolina, he has seen members of his own family, and other low-income families, struggle to understand court and prison systems.

Because of the pandemic and IRB protocols, Young hasn’t been able to interview currently or previously incarcerated people. Instead, he is conducting several interviews with probation officers, parole officers, and lawyers, including the Robeson County district attorney. He is also scouring public information in state websites, archives, and statutes.

“No one in my family has gone to graduate school, so I didn’t know what to expect about research,” Young says. REACH has allowed him to learn these skills “in an environment with like-minded people who are focused on their goals.”

He has worked with his faculty mentor, Jane Haladay, professor of American Indian studies, several times in past semesters. As part of his REACH fellowship, he meets with her every two weeks to discuss his progress, and she is helping him to find opportunities to present at conferences. “We have a rapport,” Young says.

Young is a veteran of the US Air Force, and in addition to his work as a REACH fellow, he also edits UNCP’s student newspaper and directs the campus food pantry. After graduation, he will pursue a degree in constitutional law. “This project has kind of catapulted me into a future career to be a bridge between my community and the legal system,” he says.

Author

  • Ben Dedman

    Ben Dedman is a writer and staff editor at AAC&U.

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