Alumni Spotlight: Unconventional Paths
In this Alumni Spotlight, we catch up with Marica Gossard, Pui-Yan Yam, and Kevin Wright. When we initially asked these successful alumni about their willingness to be interviewed for this newsletter, all three responded with something along the lines of: “I’m not sure you want to interview me because I followed a path that is different from a typical WSU Sociology PhD.” Our response? “Perfect!” Here, we focus on three alums who are using their sociological training in university settings, but in very different ways. We hope you enjoy hearing about their varied experiences.
If you are an alumnus who is interested in being featured, please contact the newsletter at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Marcia Gossard graduated with her PhD from WSU in 2004, with a focus on environmental sociology and communities. Today, she is the director of Communications and Marketing for the College of Veterinary Medicine at WSU, as well as an avid yoga teacher.
Tom: When you arrived at WSU as a grad student, what were your career plans?
Marcia: I am the poster child for having an alternative career. I came as a grad student in 1997 and was very interested in environmental issues. I remember Gene Rosa saying getting an environmental sociology degree does not mean that you will be able to save the world, but it does allow you to do a lot of good work. I have so many fond memories of graduate school and would go back tomorrow if I could. I loved everything about it: the intellectual aspects, the camaraderie, talking about big ideas. I have nothing but good things to say about the Sociology department at WSU. But I realized early on that I was interested in applying the work and particularly using science to inform environmental policy.
Around 2002, I applied to be an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Mass Media Fellow sponsored by the American Sociological Association, which places scientists in media organizations, and was one of a few sociologists to get it. I also applied and was awarded to go to the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (a research institute in Austria), which I turned down for the AAAS Mass Media Fellowship. For the fellowship, I worked at Newsweek magazine in New York City for 10 weeks, which seemed very appealing and exciting to me, and it had the applied aspect that I was interested in. I wanted to learn how to communicate science to a general audience. At the time Newsweek was still owned by the Graham family, who also owned the Washington Post, and many people there became quite well known later, including Jon Meacham, who was the managing editor at the time.
I came back from that summer, and I was more convinced than ever that I wanted to do something that was going to impact policy. It seems naive in today’s world (laughs), but I felt that if people could understand the science, we could solve the world’s problems. I took that to heart so much so that I worked for two years to apply to the AAAS Technology and Policy Fellowship, which was my dream. I got it, but I didn’t end up taking it, so I’ll give you that punchline. Over a three-week period I interviewed with offices in the State Department and USAID and traveled back and forth to Washington, DC. I was offered two positions: one to go to Africa to do energy work with USAID, and one that involved work in the State Department Office of Climate Change.
I came back from my last interview, and it turned out I was pregnant. I had been married 16 years at the time, so you can imagine the shock. And this was the same week I got the offer to either move to Africa or work at the State Department, which is a 14-hour-a-day job and heavy travel. It’s the quintessential family problem: take this job that is very demanding or raise a family. We decided that moving to Washington, D.C., for a two-year position, having a baby, and me being gone all the time was a recipe for disaster, so I turned it down. Sometimes I do think about what my life would have been like had I done that.
Tom: So what happened instead?
Marcia: It turned out okay because I naively decided to become a freelance science writer instead. That’s not as easy as it sounds. It’s hard to be a freelancer because you have to cold call people and drum up clients. I worked for the California Energy Commission, the Pew Charitable Trusts, and the AAAS. I wrote an article in American Archeology. My sociology background helped because I understood science, so it gave me the ability to formulate better questions when I interviewed people.
I did that for a few years and then I saw a half-time job advertised with the College of Veterinary medicine for a development writer and thought it would be great with my freelancing. I loved it and I did that for many years. But as things go at WSU, you get better at your job and they ask you to do more. Almost two years ago I was offered the position of director of Communications for the college. It’s been really rewarding, and I enjoy the work. Many times, I believe having the PhD gives me entrée and street cred with the faculty because they know I understand them and the science as well as what it’s like to be affiliated with an academic institution. I’m very happy at my job and I believe in the College of Veterinary Medicine. Every day is interesting. Now my son is 17 and he barely wants to talk to me, so I could move to Washington, DC, and he wouldn’t care (laughs). Seriously, he’s a great kid.
Sadie: What is your advice for graduate students who are looking towards a sort of non-academic path as you took?
Marcia: At least when I was in graduate school, you were trained to be an academic and, so, when I decided I wasn’t going to do that, I thought, “What else am I going to do?” But so many of the skills that you learn in graduate school are transferable into other professions, whether you go into academia or not: persistence, intellectual curiosity, research skills, and hanging in there with people who disagree with you. One of the things that you learn as a graduate student is how to argue effectively and logically, and that is a skill you have in your toolbox. You can persuade people with rational thought, sometimes (laughs).
I joke that I have a PhD in human behavior, which it’s really not, but you understand how people behave in the world and how structures affect the way people behave, and having that curtain pulled back helps you navigate other situations. I did not realize how useful a lot of those things would be in my career, but they have been, and many of those skills are helpful in almost any job. There are a lot of interesting things that you can do with a graduate degree in any science.
Pui-Yan Lam joined the WSU Sociology graduate program in 1995. After earning a PhD in 2001, Pui-Yan accepted a tenure track job at Eastern Washington University. Pui-Yan continues to work at EWSU, working as a public sociologist for the community. Pui-Yan was recently awarded the Eva Lassman ‘Take Action Against Hate’ Award
Tom: After you graduated from WSU you got a job up the road at Eastern Washington University. Can you tell us about that?
Pui-Yan: When I was working on my dissertation, I applied to and got an interview at Eastern. I liked that they serve a lot of first-generation college students because my undergraduate university, San Jose State, was the same. I enjoyed having classmates of all ages and learning about their life experiences. I felt like that was an important part of my sociological training as an undergrad coming to the U.S. from Hong Kong. Through my classmates, I learned about U.S. society, and it was eye opening. I loved that the U.S. system allows students from different paths to access higher education, whereas in Hong Kong going to college is a very strict path. Universities with a mission to serve students from all sorts of backgrounds, especially first generation, were close to my heart, so I thought Eastern would be a good fit for me.
Tom: Do you have any specific memories of WSU?
Pui-Yan: One of my first teaching assignments was in the Comparative American Cultures department and through that I met and got to know Linda Vo, who is a sociologist and I think was affiliated with the department at the time. She is in the Asian American Studies department at UC Irvine now. I became more active with a student organization on the WSU campus and Professor Vo helped us organize events. She became an informal mentor to me, asking me things I wasn’t even thinking about, but also through observing her as a faculty member and seeing her mentorship. To observe her career from afar was inspiring because she is a scholar who is not only publishing great work, and of relevance to the Asian American communities, but she’s also very involved in those communities. I feel fortunate that I got to know her by chance and develop that relationship.
Tom: The Spokesman-Review recently featured you in an article highlighting the Eva Lassman ‘Take Action Against Hate’ Award. Can you speak about winning that award?
Pui-Yan: Towards the latter part of my time at WSU, I started to become very active on campus. Around that time, another sociology graduate student was working to create an Asian American Graduate Student Association at WSU, and I was invited to be the co-president. So, I started to get experience doing activism, especially around racial equity. I carried that with me when I started at Eastern and the dean at the time encouraged me. In my first year at Eastern I attended diversity forums to figure out what the issues are and became involved with various committees. I met people who were active in the Asian American communities in Spokane, but mostly my activism was within the university because I thought that was the best place for me. I could see things from the student/activist side because I could remember my experiences. It wasn’t until after the 2016 Presidential election that I felt like I needed to do more. I became co-chair of the Asian Pacific Islander Coalitions (APIC) Spokane chapter in 2017 (with Rowena Pineda) and became involved in other organizations and coalitions. At the time we stepped up to be the co-chairs, people kept saying they were so happy to have two young leaders, and we were like, “We’re young?!” (laughs). We thought our priority should be to develop young leadership. We built an advisory committee with younger Asian Americans focusing on advocacy, particularly legislative work. In Spokane especially, many of the Asian organizations are primarily immigrant based so we wanted to get the American-born generation more involved, and there was nothing at the time that they could belong to. The award is especially meaningful and personal because we were nominated by the young leaders that we raised, and I think that was their way of showing their appreciation.
The last year of our co-chair was the start of COVID, followed by a rise in anti-Asian racism. So we had to jump in and do a lot of work around these issues. This is where my sociological training was very helpful. I remember the first case of COVID in the U.S. was in the state of Washington and I thought this may trigger a lot of racism as we have seen in history. We quickly jumped in and partnered with the Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane and organized things like bystander intervention trainings. Education is also needed because I think Asian Americans, as a group, are still relatively invisible and many people don’t know the history of Asian Americans in the United States. So this is another thing we have been involved with. I’m using my training as a sociologist and my knowledge about Asian American communities to develop educational programs. I’m no longer the co-chair, but I’m serving on the board of the organization, and we are moving to become a C3 so we can get grants to support this work.
Tom: It’s interesting and important work and I think it serves as a great example for the next generation of WSU graduates. What are your plans for the future?
Pui-Yan: Educating our larger community. There are also many efforts to push for ethnic studies, for example, in the past few years. Because of the rise of anti-Asian racism, but also the murder of George Floyd, I think there is more demand from students to teach about racism in schools. But of course, we are facing backlash with the anti-critical race theory movements spreading across the nation. For me, it is important to focus not only on Asian American studies but race and ethnic studies in general, and I’m excited about that. Our organization is working closely with the school district on these issues and how we, as a community organization, can help teachers infuse more about the Asian American experience into the curriculum. This is something I have the expertise to contribute to.
Tom, your influence on me in graduate school allowed me to become familiar with studies of civic engagement. This has also been useful in my community work because I am interested in figuring out what gets people engaged and involved and building capacity. I’m putting the knowledge that I gained in graduate school into practice. Even though a lot of things I didn’t plan, somehow the dots connect, and I am able to use what I learned from different people now 20 years later.
After finishing undergrad degrees in sociology and psychology at Towson University in Baltimore, Kevin Wright joined the WSU Sociology department as a master’s student in 2004. After completing an MA in Sociology, Kevin completed his PhD in criminal justice at WSU in 2010. Following graduation, he became a professor at ASU, where he founded the ASC Center for Correctional Solutions.
Tom: What memories do you have of WSU?
Kevin: What I remember the most is the people. I came out on a visit on my own, and to this day I’ve never seen the camaraderie, supportiveness, and welcomeness that the grad students extended. It was like I was already part of the group. It’s no exaggeration to say that they sold me on the program, and that I wanted to come there just because I wanted to be a part of it. The students in my cohort, a few of which are faculty there now, Kristen Cutler and Sarah Whitley, are just fantastic people that I never would have met otherwise. There was this awesome mix of senior scholars who had so much wisdom and junior faculty who were doing so well professionally.
Tom: The plot twist is something happened, and you switched to a different academic program at WSU?
Kevin: Yes, I left sociology for the program in criminal justice (as it was known at the time). The important caveat is it’s specific to me and my interests, so it had nothing to do with Sociology. I arrived at WSU with an interest in deviance or criminal justice. In my sociology classes I was learning about carbon footprints and how the employment market operates, but it wasn’t as interesting to me as deviance. I think Irshad (see past Alumni Spotlight on Irshad Altheimer) actually told me to take a class in criminal justice to get my “crim fix.” When I took that class in criminal justice, people would ask, “What does this mean for policy and for impact?” and that’s what I was missing, the direct impact of the work I was doing. So I switched programs and finished my PhD in criminal justice at WSU in 2010.
Tom: Can you tell us a bit about what you’re doing now?
Kevin: I’ve been at Arizona State University since I graduated. I started as an assistant professor in the school of criminology and criminal justice, and I was miserable on the tenure track. Every project that I took on, I had to think, “Is this going to lead to a top-tier article?” And I had to say no to a lot of things that sounded awesome because it wasn’t going to lead to publication. I would love to be a full professor someday, and I hope the work I’m doing leads to that, but by no means was I going to pressure myself to start another clock toward promotion. I get disillusioned with the traditional incentive structure in academia and concern about impact factors and citation counts. I feel like it takes me further away from making an actual impact.
So, due in part to some of that, in 2016/2017 I founded the ASC Center for Correctional Solutions. Our mission in the center is to enhance the lives of people who live and work in our correctional system. It takes a very applied, hands-on, community approach and has been very meaningful to me in the short time we’ve had.
It’s basically taking the “what works, evidence-based side of academia” and combining it with the lived experience of people who live and work in our correctional system. In my experience, the academic knowledge didn’t always line up with the lived experience. You try and put things into practice based on the data and the implications, but people who live and work in the prison tell you why your ideas aren’t going to work.
This project takes shape in many forms. I brought the Inside Out Prison Exchange Program to the state of Arizona, where we have our students learn alongside people who are incarcerated in a prison setting for a semester. I’ve taught a graduate seminar half-time at the prison and half-time at ASU. We do participatory action research where we have people in prison as collaborators at all stages of the research process. So they help us develop the instruments, we put them through IRB training, and they carry out the interviews of their fellow incarcerated men or women, which has been incredibly rewarding but incredibly challenging to pull off. We’re in our third project right now. We’ve done prison art shows where we take art from the inside and display it in the community and raise money for charity.
In terms of what I bring from sociology, it’s the age-old structure versus agency question. In criminology and criminal justice, it’s so much about individuals. Your theory of choice doesn’t matter, if it’s rational choice and deterrence or social learning and rehabilitation, you’re talking about individuals and that didn’t make sense to me. We have all these great theories about structures of poverty and inequality, and these larger systems that people are a part of, that might lead them toward crime. When it came down to preventing crime or rehabilitating people, it became a strictly psychological kind of explanation. So I’ve used sociological insights and pushed back against solely individualistic approaches that ignore these larger structures.
Sadie: What advice can you share with current graduate students?
Kevin: The main advice I give students here, and it’s simultaneously the best and worst advice in my opinion, is to consider other options. I’ve thought a lot in recent years about purpose and meaning and what I want my life to look like. I’ve taken on work that’s incredibly time intensive and, more often than not, not rewarded in the typical academic structure, but I love it. And our graduate students who work in the center love it, and the work they do in the community is meaningful for them. I say it’s simultaneously the best and worst advice because academia is still operating for the most part on these other things, like how many publications you have and where they are.