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WSU Department of Sociology Sociology News

A Glance at outgoing graduate students

Marisa is standing and smiling towards the camera with one hand on her hip.
Marisa Cervantes.

Marisa Cervantes is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology with interests in Latinx identity and intersectionality, educational inequality, youth and the life course, critical and feminist sociology, violence against women, and qualitative methods. Marisa has taught courses such as Youth and Society and Gender and Sexuality, as well as published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence.

When asked about the best part of her experience in the WSU sociology department, Marisa talked about the people and relationships she developed here.

“I’ve made a lot of good friends and colleagues but also enjoyed working with professors. In this program I was able to find people who we learn from, help, and support each other, both personally and professionally. I’ve written and presented with colleagues, and we’ve done really cool things that were fulfilling in many ways. I’m fortunate for that part of the experience and finding my people and my community.

“Also, the students. I was heavily involved with the undergrad students in various mentorship and advising roles, so that was essential to my whole experience. Serving as a mentor was a good way for me to also find community among the Latinx students.”

Marisa served as an advisor for a multicultural Greek organization, Sigma Lambda Gamma National Sorority, and as the co-advisor for the undergraduate Sociology Club. She also supported and engaged with many of the other Latinx student clubs and groups.

Marisa reflected fondly on the personal and professional growth she experienced from being in the program, moving into a new and different environment, and her experiences conducting research, teaching classes, mentoring students, and in service.

Marisa’s dissertation makes important contributions to the areas of race/ethnicity, higher educational inequality, and the life course. Marisa conducted qualitative and ethnographic research, interviewed students face to face, and conducted participant observation at campus events and organizations pertaining to the Latinx community.

“Broadly, my dissertation focuses on Latinx students at a predominantly White institution of higher education and their experiences in this transitional period. As young adults they are sort of in between adolescence and adulthood—they’re not kids or teenagers anymore, but they’re not full adults yet—and I look at what that means in this context.

The other component is how students navigate the university within the larger socio-political climate. It was at the time when the previous U.S. president was still in office. So, I was looking at the implications of the political state, especially the impacts of the immigration “debate” or policies that were being enacted as well as the social movements that were happening at the time, both on and off-campus.”

In her dissertation, Marisa employs and engages the life course perspective, Chicana feminist methodologies, and critical race theory, particularly Latinx critical race theory.

“I’m focusing on the transitional period of life that students are in, so I mentioned the life course part of it, but there’s also the individual aspect of it and the institutional. Students are in between cultural contexts, so coming from Latinx backgrounds and being in a very American institution of higher education where there’s often conflicts between what they know and their cultural capital compared to what is expected with the university, so things like that. I’m centering the lived experiences of the individuals who participated in my study and bridging that with the larger socio-political context and the additional context.”

Marisa employs an asset-based, rather than a deficit-based, perspective, focusing on the strengths within these communities.

“The last component of it looks at the strategies of resistance and community building that the students engage to navigate the college experience but also all of the other things that are happening as marginalized students within the institution and marginalized people in a white supremacist nation.”

After graduating with her PhD, Marisa currently plans to use her degree and skills working outside of academia.

“I would ideally like to work somewhere where the efforts are geared towards youth and particularly BIPOC communities because that’s where my interest lies both academically and personally. I want to use all of the privileges that I have gained through getting to the stage in my education to give back to my community. I think that there’s a lot of potential and promise in working with and for minoritized communities, and I hope that I can use my skills to help acquire more resources because that’s really what’s missing.

“I’m culturally informed, I’m a member of the community, but I’ve learned a lot of things. I understand the culture and the cultural clashes there, so a work goal is using my insider knowledge as a member of a minoritized community but also having institutional knowledge and access and being able to bridge those so that the interests of those who really need the resources are served in ways that will be beneficial for them.”


Xiao is forward facing and smiling.
Xiao Li.

Xiao Li is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology with interests in rural sociology, social stratification, youth status attainment, education, and the life course. Xiao has published in the Journal of Research in Rural Education, and taught courses such as Social Theory and Social Inequality.

Xiao similarly described the people here as a major highlight of her time in the department.

“Our faculty are very helpful and supportive. The faculty are willing to help you develop your own programs and papers and always give good advice.

“I love my cohort and it was a happy experience to learn and take classes with people who are lovely. When we took the theory class, which was, I think, the most difficult class I took, the cohort met before or after the class to talk about the readings and help each other. So, the experience has been very good because you feel like you’re not alone in the process.

“That’s why I miss Pullman because people can see each other and catch up randomly. I gained a lot from those chats. People talk about the conference paper submission process, and we have organized practice talks with everyone. This was very helpful for me because I had more chances to learn information and learn from other people’s experiences. I feel like this is a supportive group of not only faculty but also students.”

Xiao’s dissertation makes contributions to our understandings of the life course and the transition to adulthood, educational inequality, and place and rurality. She explored these processes qualitatively using the National Longitudinal Study of Youth and geo-coded data providing information at the state and county levels.

“My dissertation is mainly about the spatial differences and rural/nonrural differences in youth status attainment. I explored how the status attainment process and outcomes could be different for students who are born from rural and non-rural places. I also looked at the effects of cross-boundary migration on people’s outcomes, so that I could dig deeper into the process and the old concern of the rural brain drain.

Spatial inequality has been a very important part of studies regarding inequality. However, there is still a lack of research, especially focusing on rural students’ experiences. America has been urbanizing for 100 years, so I understand the more recent lack of attention to rural areas. But those issues are still important to know, especially for communities who continuously lose their talented young people. Those more educated young people are less likely to apply to jobs in their own community and they have to face the reality of having to choose between their hometown and their individual future, so I think this is an important and interesting topic. I’m very interested in spatial inequalities and status attainment.”

Xiao’s dissertation findings make interesting and important contributions to our understanding of spatial differences in youth status attainment.

“I found that rural students are still more disadvantaged than those who grew up in non-rural places. This disadvantage can be shown in different outcomes such as their education; they’re less likely to attend the more selective colleges. Also, the education degree differences have been narrowed comparatively to prior studies.

There are differences that are rooted in family factors. I also explored the county-level variables, like county economic structure, the percent of workers in various industries, poverty rates, the percent of adults that get a college degree, things like that, and they have an influence on people’s future outcomes.

About migration, I found that youth who moved across the boundaries tend to have a higher education. This includes not only youth who grew up in rural places, but also those who grew up in urban places and then move to a non-metropolitan area to get an education. They tend to have better educational outcomes than those who stayed in the area as well. However when talking about their later labor market outcomes, those better educated youth who get education in the non-metropolitan colleges tend to return to metro areas for jobs. It’s a kind of rural brain drain, but people have interesting pathways to gain their status attainment across spaces.”

Xiao is currently on the job market and hopes to find a research position in academia, but is keeping her options open to post-docs and teaching positions, given the difficult market.

“I want to find a career in academia, but it’s not 100% for sure. I prefer academia because I love research and I feel like this is a very important topic. I want to conduct my research.

I appreciate WSU for offering a lot of teaching opportunities, even though teaching is not my priority. It’s at least another open door for you when you are looking for a position for your future. The academic job market has been getting better because last year we had really few opportunities.”