First generation grad student, alum delves into research

Katie Jensen ’09 just returned from a year in Rio de Janeiro, where she worked at a refugee center with officials, asylum seekers and refugees. Her dissertation is on refugee status determination. Courtesy of Katie Jensen

Katie Jensen ’09 is currently doing her dissertation at the Univeristy of Texas-Austin. She’s studying the refugee status determination process in Brazil, where she was doing research for the past year in Rio de Janeiro. She accredits her passion for research to her time at Vassar.

Q: What are you doing? Where are you living?
A: I just got back two weeks ago from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. I had been living there for the year, but now I’m back in Austin, Texas where I’m finishing up a PhD in Sociology at the University of Texas at Austin. In Rio I was doing my dissertation research. My dissertation is on the refugee status determination process in Brazil. I’m interested in how the asylum process works in practice, and with what consequences for those who apply. In Brazil I was working at a Refugee Center, working with officials and asylum seekers and refugees – speaking in Portuguese, Spanish, English – helping people apply for refugee status, know their rights, apply for travel authorizations, get family reunification, etc. I also interviewed asylum seekers, refugees, civil society actors and state officials to understand the process and the experiences of those who participate in it. But, now I’m back in Austin! And I’m working on analyzing my dissertation data – fieldnotes, interview data, documents– and on writing my dissertation to finish my PhD next year. And, hanging out with my dog (Zoe, a chubby black lab) that I missed so while I was in Rio.

Q: How do you feel your Vassar education has affected your life/career?
A: I wouldn’t be pursuing my PhD if it wasn’t for Vassar. Vassar provided me with so many amazing opportunities. The support of the Burnam and Maguire Fellowships provided me with the opportunities to travel to Argentina in order to conduct my own research projects, and to realize that doing field research was something I had a passion for. Without that, I don’t think I would have thought graduate school was for me. As the first in my family to pursue a graduate degree, I don’t think I would have thought it was a possibility. And it certainly would not have been possible without the coursework and mentoring I got at Vassar. Leslie Offutt was an incredibly supportive and dedicated advisor. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have gotten into graduate school without the wise advice that Katie Hite gave me when I was on the eve of applying. And Joe Nevins’ coursework pushed my thinking, to think critically on a number of issues in ways that continue to this day to affect me theoretically and politically. My Vassar education laid the groundwork for my future, a future that would not have otherwise been possible for me.

Q: What were you involved in at Vassar?
A: I did a BA in Latin American and Latino/a Studies, with a minor in Political Science. I loved my dorm and did a lot to build community in Cushing (as one of the aptly named “Community Fellows”). I would put on the Spot of Tea on Sunday nights for Cushing, and also worked to have a lot of educational programming put on– coordinating with the faculty who lived there at the time. We did a photography exhibit of the US-Mexico Border course, after Joe Nevin’s inaugural course with the Spring Break trip to Arizona-Sonora (then with Sam Speers). We screened Spike Lee’s “When the Levees Broke,” etc. Through the amazing work study program I was able to work with different local initiatives and organizations – tutoring at the Poughkeepsie Middle School and as an ESL Teaching Assistant at the Poughkeepsie High School. Above all, I was involved in Rural and Migrant Ministry as the Educational Assistant for the Youth Arts Empowerment Group. That was incredibly formative and transformative for me. It’s an amazing organization and I was so lucky to get to know those kids, spending my Friday nights with them organizing social justice conferences, producing spoken word poetry, painting, chatting, all while eating cheap pizza or Chinese food in Newburgh. I was the selected student representative on the Good Neighbors Committee with the Religious and Spiritual Life Office, which worked with and helped fund Hip Hop Theater.

Q: Favorite memory on campus?
A: Wow, just one?! Founder’s Day my senior year? Throwing my senior thesis into the bonfire the night before graduation? Streaking through the quad to the library (do people still do that? I hope so!)? Taking a beer tasting mini-course in the Mug? Runs on the Vassar Farm? How can I choose!

Q: What’s next for you?
A: Now I have to write my dissertation, and then turn it into a book! I’ll finish up my PhD in Sociology in May 2018, and then I hope to work as a Sociology professor. I want to teach critical race theory, immigration, and qualitative methods.

Q: Any words of wisdom for current students?
A: Often the best courses are not necessarily the best because you’re interested in the course material, but because of the professor. Ask around and take classes with those really amazing professors, rather than just based on your interest in the topic. Those will be the ones that will most change you, and that will leave the largest lasting impact. Get off campus when you can, get out of the Vassar bubble, and go get to know Poughkeepsie!

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