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Research Matters

Careers and more follow from undergraduate research projects examining issues of race and immigration

Story Series
Bridgewater Magazine

In his lifetime, Carter Remy had attended many different types of schools and had noticed a recurring problem. At the public, charter and Catholic schools where he’d spent time, each featured programs designed to assist non-English-speaking students, immigrants and students of color. Programs that ultimately came up short.

“They never devoted the necessary resources to these initiatives,” said the 2018 graduate, who came to the United States from Haiti at the age of 12, and who majored in anthropology at BSU.

Sensing this was a problem that extended beyond the scope of his personal experience, Mr. Remy decided this would be something worth looking into when it came time to take on an undergraduate research project. The result was a paper titled “Adapting to College Life: An Ethnographic Study of the Linguistic Challenges Faced by Immigrant, Black and Male Students at Bridgewater State University.”

The research involved interviews with diversity administrators at BSU, as well as English as a second language (ESL) and global language faculty. Mr. Carter also observed and interacted with four male immigrant students who had completed their first year at BSU. The goal was to assess the linguistic readiness for ESL courses and programming of these students, with an eye toward offering recommendations that will help today’s ESL students succeed at BSU.

Mr. Remy found that the university could be doing more to help these students, and his paper delivered seven possible ways of addressing the shortfall, including offering native-language campus tours and family-orientation sessions, providing empathy training for faculty and staff, and amending the first-year student survey to better gauge how well ESL students can speak and write English.

The paper fed his interest in linguistic anthropology leading to a life spent understanding speech communities; the ethnography of communication; and linguistic readiness in Black, immigrant and underserved communities in the United States. Today, Mr. Carter has used his BSU project as a stepping stone and is a freelance researcher living in Warwick, Rhode Island.

During the pandemic, he also took a job with an area nonprofit that serves the very populations he’s interested in learning more about and helping better assimilate. “I want to help young people so they don’t have
to go through what I went through as a student,” Mr. Remy said.

A number of BSU undergraduates over the years have undertaken projects that deal with issues of racial justice, immigration and related matters. They are driven by a desire to learn, but also to discover ways to address some of the systemic problems in America that disproportionately affect immigrants and people of color.

Often this research involves interviewing people impacted by racism, inadequate resources and opportunities, and multiple forms of discrimination.

“I would suggest other students do research on minority students, because there is always something we can learn from someone else’s perspective,” said Amanda Meritus, ’19, who majored in health studies. “To not discuss these issues is to ignore them and pretend like they do not exist, which only makes it worse. Having an open discussion with those who are willing and feel comfortable doing so, gives the speaker an opportunity to share their truth and gives the receiver an opportunity to become aware of the microaggressions around them and think about microaggressions that they themselves may have caused others.”

The project of Ms. Meritus and Erica Devonish, ’21, under the mentorship of Dr. Emily Field, associate professor of English, was titled, “Black Women at BSU: A Qualitative Study of Relationship-Building Challenges at a Predominately White Institution.” The questions devised by the researchers sought to learn about bias, stereotyping, code-switching and any lack of representation, as well as the challenges Black female students face with regard to such things as forming relationships with professors and peers. The results, combining answers from current students and alumni, allowed the student- researchers to discover whether feelings and perceptions changed over time.

They found that racism does indeed exist at BSU, with many Black women feeling unrepresented and unheard. Some faculty, Ms. Meritus said, were shown to impose rash judgments on students of color. Erica, an English and communication studies major from Hingham, said she saw herself and her own experiences reflected in the results.

“Nothing really opened my eyes on this topic,” she said. “I feel that all of these experiences are things I’ve lived through and seen throughout middle school, high school and college. If anything, it made me feel I wasn’t alone in my experience, and there is a community on campus where when I have a problem, there are people I can talk to who share the same experiences.”

One of the study’s objectives was to learn how the subjects viewed their own skin tone. Erica and Ms. Meritus provided color wheels to help the women express their self-perceptions. They were then asked about how being darker or lighter skinned made a difference in the ways in which they felt they did or did not fit in on campus.

When the student-researchers investigated the challenges their subjects faced with regard to entering relationships on campus, they found some respondents felt they’d been judged by faculty in a way that was different from the experiences of white students.

The various findings of the study delivered a clear message: “I learned about the importance of having racial diversity to reduce these racial microaggressions and feelings of being isolated,” Ms. Meritus said.

Meanwhile, one of the many takeaways for Erica came from interviewing one subject in particular – an international student. “I feel like not everybody has the same experience with racism,” she said. “One student who grew up in Nigeria said she didn’t experience any racism at home, where everyone is Black. She said experiencing racism when she came to this country made her feel it was an American thing.”

Anytime a student-researcher undertakes a topic relating to racial justice, it can manifest myriad benefits – benefits that may extend beyond the campus, said Dr. Jenny Shanahan, assistant provost in BSU’s Center for Transformative Learning, which oversees undergraduate research.

“Addressing persistent inequities and dismantling racism must include examining and changing our own practices and our own institution,” she said. “That’s what these student-researchers and their faculty mentors are doing through their scholarly work.

“As an institution of higher education, and particularly as a public university,” she added, “we have a mission of serving the world and our region. Faculty mentors of the students featured here are guiding their students in their lifelong development as engaged and informed citizens working toward racial and social justice.”

Dr. Shanahan noted that the students featured here were supported by BSU’s Adrian Tinsley Program summer grants. Their studies were published in The Undergraduate Review, BSU’s journal of undergraduate research.

Carter Remy’s mentor for his 2018 project was Dr. Diana Fox, professor of anthropology. She sees undergraduate research as a catalyst for much personal growth for those who undertake it.

“When students can unpack the layers of particular groups’ experiences through this lens, not only does it allow them to situate problems within this complex matrix, but it allows them to develop solutions that respond to the challenges spawned by these histories,” she said. “Employing multi and interdisciplinary research methodologies to deconstruct the layers of race and ethnicity are empowering at collective and individual levels, because of the depth of perception, the self-reflexive window into identity, and that these constructs are neither natural nor inevitable.”

The research project that Daniela Belice, ’18, undertook in her senior year led to a Fulbright Research Scholarship, and she studied immigration and settlement studies in the province of Ontario, Canada. The Haiti native and Brockton resident grew up watching immigrants (including her own mother) who’d practiced medicine at the highest levels in their home countries come to the United States to find the only jobs open to them in the same field were entry-level positions.

“Because their skills were not transferable, they ended up as low-skilled workers,” she said. “What I realized is that for many people, when they come to the U.S., the first thing they do is try to get additional certification.”

In the meantime, a lower-level job with a health agency or hospital paid the bills and allowed the newly arrived professionals to get a foot in the door. Ms. Belice’s research project was titled, “Unseen and Unheard: The Experiences of Immigrants Who Work as Low-Level Healthcare Providers.” Her mentor was Dr. Norma J. Anderson, associate professor of sociology.

Ms. Belice continued her research in Canada, and learned that our neighbor to the north had found a solution to this problem, namely government programs that create pathways for migrating professionals, especially in the fields of medicine, engineering and accounting. “There were a lot of success stories,” said Ms. Belice, who now works at Boston University.

“I’m definitely continuing in this line of research and as a career,” she said. “My passion is to help those who come from Africa and the Caribbean region. In the U.S., people become very marginalized by immigration policy and labor laws. And my goal is to work with those populations to help them and to someday amend those policies.”

Perhaps, Ms. Belice suggests, Canada’s approach might be something researchers like her and federal officials can try to recreate in this country.

The real-world implications of studies like Ms. Belice’s are not lost on her mentor.

“Providing opportunities for independent research benefits students who get to refine important skills by working with mentors, but their work can also have real relevance in our society,” Dr. Anderson said. “The pandemic and our heavy reliance on essential workers at all levels of health care, millions of whom are immigrants, demonstrates the enormous continuing significance of Daniela’s research.“

The findings of undergraduate research on race-related issues on campus and beyond are no doubt the types of topics members of the Special Presidential Task Force on Racial Justice are currently looking at. Student voices are critical in leading the way to a more equitable and just future, and five students are included on the task force, comprising nearly a quarter of its membership.

“When BSU implements recommendations emerging out of student research, that takes us as an institution, as a campus community, closer to racial justice,” Dr. Fox said. “Then we will be doing our part as an institution, sitting on Indigenous land, to rectify past wrongs and to create a sustainable future for us all.”

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