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Seeking Answers

International student finds her place as researcher

As a first-time researcher Paulina Aguilar, ’23, admits she was initially nervous about participating in Bridgewater State University’s nationally recognized undergraduate research program.

“Sometimes we think of research as collecting data in a lab or it’s science-based,” the criminal justice major said. “But research is more than that. Research allows us to directly address an issue that people may not think about when they think of research.”

Through the Adrian Tinsley Program for Undergraduate Research (ATP), Aguilar and other BSU students tackled just such an issue.

They worked with Dr. Francisco Alatorre to examine how homeless women living in Arizona are treated in shelters.

The goal was to see if the care offered in shelters was gender specific, what are the differences in how men are treated versus women, and were the women safe within the shelter?

“We wanted to consider the fact that they have been victims of trauma, first by being homeless, but second, their personal traumatic experiences,” Paulina said.

The students (virtually) interviewed homeless women and listened to their stories. What they discovered was a surprise.

“The conflicts that arise are more often women on women,” Paulina said.

This past summer the group went back to work analyzing the data to determine what could be done.

“Now that we know what’s going on in the shelter, we wanted to focus on hands-on solutions,” Paulina said.

Since arriving on campus two years ago, Alatorre has worked hard to engage minority students like Aguilar, helping them get more involved, particularly in undergraduate research.

“That’s my job as a mentor, helping the ones who may have difficulties or obstacles, those are the ones I’m very interested in helping,” he said.

Originally from Mexico, the BSU assistant criminal justice professor understands the roadblocks that come with being an immigrant, particularly language and cultural barriers that can lead to isolation. 

“Sometimes students live in their own bubble, so I try to help push them out of their bubble,” he said. “I help them find that comfort zone and let them know it’s all going to be okay, they just have to try.”

Like her mentor, Aguilar was raised in Mexico and moved to the United States just over two years ago.

Having Alatorre as a mentor was a benefit.

“It was a plus that we had a connection, both of us being Mexican, but beyond that, he gave me a lot of space to do things by myself, and take responsibility for the work being done,” Paulina said.

Alatorre hopes to see more BSU students, especially international students, participate in the ATP program.

“Sometimes students don’t know what they need to be successful,” he said. “Many times, they doubt themselves. They are working full time, have to pay for school...they feel invisible. I want them to know, ‘I see you.’”

Paulina encourages her peers to take advantage of opportunities like ATP.

“The undergraduate research program is a really great opportunity that BSU gives students,” she said. “For me, it was the perfect opportunity to get hands-on experience in something I’m passionate has been a great learning process and has helped me to better trust myself and know that I can do things by myself.”

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