Dr. Rudes developed an Undergraduate Research Laboratory at ACE! over ten years ago that gives undergraduate students the ability to work alongside doctoral, and masters’ students, and faculty to enhance their research experiences. I co-direct the lab and get to work with an incredible team of undergraduate research assistants (UGRAs) every day at ACE!. For example, GMU undergraduate, Khanh Nguyen, joined ACE! as a UGRA in January 2019 to assist me with my thesis research. I spent the first few weeks deeply orienting Khanh to the project – explaining the background and development of the project, the data collection process, and preliminary findings. I wanted Khanh to feel like she had been a part of the project since it originated; like she was in the field collecting data with our team. Khanh was an instrumental part of my thesis from the time that I finished data collection throughout my defense. She assisted with data entry, qualitative coding and analysis, and helped with editing and proof-reading as my defense approached.
Another GMU undergrad, Zachery Zaborowski, joined ACE! in June 2019 because he was interested in participating in research of consequence. Zach originally worked on transcribing interview data, and then accompanied us to a prison data collection trip in August. I taught him qualitative research methods and prepared him for the trip; however, I had no expectation for Zach to be an exemplar field interviewer or observer. In fact, I suspected that he would spend the week observing the data collection process. However, I distinctly remember the moment that I knew that he would someday be an excellent researcher. I was interviewing an individual who was living in restricted housing. He mentioned that he sometimes decides not to go to yard/recreation. I, not being a curious qualitative researcher, was more focused on getting through the interview protocol. However, Zach asked if he could ask a question. Of course, I said yes. Zach inquired, “How do you make the decision whether or not to go to yard?” This simple question yielded an intricate discussion of the unit staff offering showers and particular groups during that time because there is not enough space to accommodate a large group.
Toward the end of this interview, this individual shared with us that they were in the process of transitioning from female to male and his desire to transfer to a male institution. After the interview concluded, Zach asked if he could go back to ask a few questions. When Zach returned, he shared with me that he asked him to talk about his experience being transgender while living in restricted housing more generally. This individual expressed his frustration with others’ unwillingness to call him by his preferred pronouns and shared details about the process involved with hormone therapy and obtaining a diagnosis of gender dysphoria. From that moment, Zach was intrigued by transgender inmate’s experiences in restricted housing, and even did a solo interview with another transgender individual on the unit.
Sometimes, when I leave prisons, I feel guilty in that I only “take” from interviewees, and I have nothing to immediately “give” back – sure, we send a final report with recommendations and thoughtful thank you letters, but there is no guarantee that the recommendations will be implemented. In many ways, having UGRAs can feel similar in that we take their (sometimes) free labor, but may not be able to give them something back in equal comparison. This realization is why I ensure that the relationships that I build with my UGRAs are symbiotic. I believe this is the foundation and most beneficial part of having a nested mentoring model, and that this is how I pay it forward.
While I am incredibly grateful for the help UGRAs provide on my research, it is my mission to encourage and provide the opportunity for my UGRAs to pursue their own research endeavors at ACE!. After Zach demonstrated his passion for LGBTQ+ issues in prison, I suggested that he begin his own project to understand living experiences among LGBTQ+ individuals living in prison. After the data collection trip, Zach spent the following semester working with a team of graduate students to openly code two years of interview data, and is now currently working on a manuscript that he will be presenting at the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences (ACJS) conference in March 2020. Additionally, Khanh is preparing to do an undergrad thesis project and will be using portions of my MA thesis data for her project. Throughout the next year, I will be working closely with Khanh on her project with the goal of helping her submit a manuscript for publication.
I not only assist my UGRAs in gaining research experience, but also in meeting their personal goals and objectives. I work closely and at length with each of my UGRAs on their professional development – including preparing and editing their resumes/CVs, cover letters, personal statements and narratives, and job, scholarship, and graduate school applications. Throughout my time co-directing the lab, I have celebrated graduate school acceptances and admissions, job offers, and numerous scholarship awards with my UGRAs.
In such a short time, I have learned so much from my mentor, Dr. Rudes and also from these remarkable students, whether it was a learning technique that worked particularly well (or not so well), or some seemingly nonchalant technological shortcut that I had no idea existed (most notably, learning that I can split the screen on my laptop). Working with UGRAs is by far the most rewarding aspect of being a graduate student. I have had opportunities that are unheard of for doctoral students. Every day, I get to teach and train UGRAs about research. I develop training to teach UGRAs new skills. I assist UGRAs with their professional development, and help them secure jobs, internships, scholarships, or admission into graduate school programs. But most importantly, I get to have my mentor and our UGRA team by my side in every aspect of the research process – learning from Dr. Rudes and the UGRAs as they learn from me. Paying it forward is an amazing gift!