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The College of Liberal and Fine Arts

Promising Scholars

How graduate students leverage COLFA
resources to fuel their passions

Backed by dedicated and talented faculty within their departments and in the university at large, COLFA graduate students conduct extraordinary research that takes them from labs and libraries to research sites around the world.

The first time Melissa Whitney took a Chicano literature course, she had an epiphany: the descendants of Mexican immigrants to the U.S. shared striking similarities with the descendants of German settlers. The impact of both groups on local culture was as vital as the melodic heartbeat of the accordion in conjunto music. The realization motivated Whitney—originally from Germany herself—to pursue research into German Americans as part of her education in the Department of English, a combination that seemed unlikely until she realized that oral histories, diaries, and letters are all essentially texts. And as she soon discovered, specialists in each area of interest were readily available to her within the college.

As Associate Professor Ben Olguín put it, Whitney’s position at UTSA places her in “a crucible of cross-cultural studies.” So much of what is done here, he said, “involves theories of hybrids, theories of borderlands”—giving rise to an intellectual atmosphere perfectly suited to the pursuit of unconventional and interdisciplinary interests.

Whitney’s passion lies in separating the authentic from the stereotypical, the true experiences of German immigrants from the quaint image of a rustic Bavarian village. Her dissertation research has led her to a revealing examination of German settlements in Texas. In her explorations of the Texas Hill Country, she’s stumbled across dozens of letters and diaries written between the 1830s and 1930s, which she has carefully digitized before returning to their owners.

Whitney plans to donate copies of the precious texts to UTSA’s John Peace Library, which has played a crucial role in her research by giving her access to original documents from as far away as Germany and Australia. “It’s a great research university,” she said of UTSA.

Improving Foster Care
Thanks to the federal Education and Training Voucher Program, foster children can receive funding for higher education. But as Beatrix Perez explained, “it’s hard to do that if they don’t have a home.”

Perez understands firsthand how domestic instability can affect the pursuit of education. As an undergraduate, her academic life came under strain when she and her family were forced to deal with housing difficulties. The experience led her to study homelessness and education as a graduate student in the Department of Sociology. She focused on the challenges and obstacles foster children face, not only once they age out of the system, but also while in placement.

“She spent three months at centers serving foster care youth who were aging out of care, and [she] interviewed over 40 youth,” said Professor Harriett Romo of Perez’s leading role in a student research project. “She can be very proud to be the first author on two peer-reviewed publications in international journals, with more sure to come.”

“My thesis is a collection of papers that resulted from a study exploring the life experiences of former foster care youth,” said Perez. “Through this work we were able to glean much about the life experiences of youth while they were in care, during the transition out of care, and after they ‘aged out’ or exited the foster care system. The collection highlights the numerous challenges foster youth encounter as they journey from placement through transition.” Her research was presented at several conferences in the U.S. and in Puerto Rico.

A mother of two, Perez plans to pursue a Ph.D. and is currently teaching in the Department of Sociology.

Preserving Language
Presidential Scholar and Alvarez Research Fellow Aaron Carter-Cohn developed an interest in African languages when his work as organist and choirmaster at St. Francis Episcopal Church brought him into contact with African refugees. His interest became a passion when he met a Nigerian choir at a conference in China.

A graduate student in the Department of Music, Carter-Cohn’s interests are extraordinarily broad, said Professor John P. Nix: “He’s a very fine composer. He’s seeking organist certification. He started a nonprofit to preserve languages.”

Nix and Carter-Cohn collaborated on a UTSA Vocal Lab study, working with a Houston-based Nigerian choir. “We’re looking at how your primary language affects the vowels you sing with,” Carter-Cohn said, adding that there is a strong connection between speech and melody in African languages.

Through his contact with immigrant communities, Carter-Cohn realized how the pressure to assimilate to mainstream culture put African languages in danger of extinction. “Singing is one way you can preserve these languages. It’s a great way to expose children of all ages to other cultures. You really learn a lot about a culture through the music and the language.”

The immigrants he interviewed stated that they became more concerned with holding on to their culture after they emigrated. Nigeria has over 500 indigenous languages (out of 6,000 languages in the world); nine of these have become extinct within the past 50 years and others are fading fast because of Western influence and the predominance of English.

“I don’t imagine that I can prevent the extinction of these languages,” Carter-Cohn said. “My efforts are to document and preserve songs that are sung in these languages, and in some cases make arrangements of these songs that are accessible to choirs and singing groups in the U.S. and elsewhere, which I hope will create awareness of dying languages.”

Carter-Cohn plans to move to Nigeria, where he will lecture on music and study Nigerian languages at the University of Lagos. He’ll also participate in two internship programs as an organist at the Cathedral Church of Christ in Lagos and will work with the Musical Society of Nigeria—the very choir that provided the creative spark for his research interest.

Strengthening Relationships
As a newlywed, Brittany Pratt identified a gap in marriage research. Much of the data, she explained, examines the newlywed period as an important developmental phase. Other key research areas include the role of humor in relationships and examinations of various types of marriages. So for her master’s thesis in communication, Pratt attempted to synthesize these different approaches by asking how newlyweds use humor to negotiate expectations, and how different ways of doing this can predict long-term marriage success.

Pratt surveyed a group of newlyweds to determine their relationship expectations, then used her results to characterize each respondent as one of several marital types. She credits her thesis adviser, Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Communication H. Paul LeBlanc, for helping her define an effective research process.

“What makes her study different is that she applied research on humor in the developmental process,” said LeBlanc, explaining that one of Pratt’s key findings suggested that women use more positive humor in a relationship than men do.

Pratt, who said she’s officially transitioning out of the newlywed stage as she prepares to have her first child, plans to pursue a Ph.D. in communication.

Performing with Passion
For MFA student and artist Jimmy James Canales, research entails total immersion into the topic at hand. It might mean working with martial arts experts, as he did for his performance piece “Karate Zarape.” Or it might mean envisioning the legend of the Alamo through the framework of Joseph Campbell’s theories on myth, as he did for “Mapache Man,” a mythical legend of his own creation.

Professor Richard Armendariz asserts that what makes Canales unique among performance artists is the level of enthusiasm and sincerity he brings to his art-making process. Much of Canales’ work has a physical component, as is evident in his performance of “Karate Zarape.”

After studying in Boston, Canales—whose art deals primarily with South Texas—was drawn back to San Antonio by the creative magnetism of his home town. UTSA was an obvious choice for him: “We have great faculty and great facilities and the library is great as well. All these things come together to make a school that works for me. And they give great scholarships.”

Canales said the program is benefitting his artistic process by teaching him how to document his art and interpret it for an audience, skills crucial to a performance artist. His work can be viewed on his YouTube channel.

Examining Racial Attitudes in Couples
Megan Hainstock first became interested in her master’s research topic as an undergraduate at UTSA. “I took a relationship class,” she recounted, “and one of the things we learned was that interracial relationships tend to have a longer engagement period because it takes longer to gain acceptance from society.”

Associate Professor Michael R. Baumann explained that most work in this area overlooks which member is which gender, treating for example, a white male and Asian female the same as an Asian female and a white male. However, Hainstock’s work distinguishes between these and focuses on pairings not typically studied, such as Hispanics with non-Hispanic whites.

In a recent study, Hainstock examined the responses of Hispanics and non-Hispanic whites regarding various same-race and mixed-race couples. One interesting discovery was that, for non-Hispanic white respondents, opinions regarding interracial relationships were influenced by feelings of competition between racial groups. The more that a person felt gains by the “other” race (in jobs, wealth, respect, power, and other factors) meant losses for his or her own race, the more negative his or her opinions of interracial relationships. However, Hispanic respondents’ opinions were not influenced by racial competition.

Hainstock applauds the university’s goal to become a Tier One research university because she believes the more research faculty and doctoral students conduct, the more opportunities there will be for undergraduates to gain experience by assisting in that research. This experience will make undergraduates more competitive when applying for jobs and graduate study. Hainstock is a second-year graduate student and is currently looking into Ph.D. programs.

Deconstructing Colonialism
When Major David Underwood began his master’s work in the Department of History, his goal was to gain the skills necessary to write a book about Iraq dedicated to the soldiers he commanded for 28 months. Underwood had been wounded in 2008, losing an arm as a result of his injuries. He began his recovery at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C., but asked to be transferred to San Antonio in order to pursue a graduate career at UTSA as he continued his rehabilitation.

Since then, Underwood’s focus has shifted from Iraq to India. Professor Brian Davies described his research as “a very sophisticated and imaginative paper on how the British Raj used Durbar ceremonies to legitimate itself in India and Burma at the beginning of the twentieth century.”

Underwood’s interest in a stamp series—his fascination with stamp collecting had already led him to co-author a book on the topic—led him to study a six-month visit to India by King George V and Queen Mary. “Every day there were formal functions,” he said of the visit. “It had an influence on both India and England. The way England viewed India was different from then on.”

The Department of History funded Underwood on a recent trip to England, where the veteran adeptly unearthed previously overlooked material, such as the diary of a member of the British royal cadre who had recorded the state visit in great detail.

“The fun thing about the research is that I wasn’t just doing it for school; I was doing it for my own edification as well,” said Underwood. He is currently planning the next step of his fascinating journey; among the items at the top of his list is the book about Iraq that originally inspired him to embark on his graduate education.

It is just this sense of excitement—the engagement students experience when personal ambitions align with academic pursuits—that COLFA seeks to promote in its graduate programs. Every year, the college increases its community of research-driven graduate students in a effort to propel UTSA to Tier One status, always with a mind to the quality of each individual learning experience. This emphasis allows research to come to life; research with the power to enrich the student, the university, and our global community.

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