Our inaugural Women in Research Travel Grant has been awarded to Jody McBrien, Professor of Education at the University of Florida, Sarasota-Manatee. The judges thought that her work “demonstrates the power and potential of research to effect real change.”
We chatted with Dr. McBrien about what drives her and what she hopes to accomplish in the future.
Q. First of all, let me start by saying congratulations. Can you share what got you started on your current research path?
A. Thank you so much for this award. I was humbled to receive it when I know there were many very capable scholars who also applied.
I was drawn to my work with resettled refugees when I began my doctoral work at Emory University. Just down the road is Clarkston, Georgia, a place often called “the most diverse square mile in America.” It has been a refugee resettlement community since the Vietnam War. My mentor and dissertation chair, Dr. Carole Hahn, encouraged me to volunteer at a refugee agency as a homework tutor early in my time at Emory. That became the impetus for my academic career. As I got to know the children and families, I was so moved by all the hardship they overcame and the gratitude they held for the US to give them an opportunity to remake their lives. They work so hard, and they have lived through horrors no one should ever have to experience.
Obviously, they are seriously misunderstood and misjudged by many native US citizens, even more so in these recent years. In spite of the negative attitudes they may have to endure once resettled, they remain firm in their desire to work hard and respect their country of resettlement. They just need encouragement. At least two of the refugees I first met now have their Master’s degrees – one in education and the other in a medical field at Vanderbilt where she is a medical researcher.
Q. How do you plan to use your travel grant?
A. I was searching through upcoming international conferences and found one in Thessaloniki, Greece in July 2018 hosted by the International Association for the Study of Forced Migration. The theme of the conference is Refugees. I will submit a proposal to speak at it and use my award to travel for the conference. I also hope to stay an extra week or two to volunteer my help with the refugees in Greece.
Q. The judges were particularly impressed with your commitment to putting research into practice for real-world results. Can you talk a little bit about the motivation for that, and what you find most challenging and most rewarding about working with that goal?
A. Most of my research has been qualitative work, and most has been with people who are considered marginalized populations. Ethically, it simply is not right to ask them to give of their time and of their lives without doing something in return. I have seen this happen, and I have seen resident populations turn away from future researchers as a result. I had it happen to me in Africa, when a local NGO worker said to me, “I have seen many researchers come to me for help. What are you going to do for us?” He was correct to ask that question. There should be reciprocity. One way to achieve this is through putting research into practice.
Working with communities to put our research into practice is enriching not only for the communities, but also for myself and for my continuing research. I learn more as I work together with people I meet in communities I research. So, for example, in Uganda, co-researchers and I have held art workshops for students and meetings with teachers. We wrote a book together with the women we came to know through our numerous trips to Lira, entitled: Cold Water: Women and Girls of Lira, Uganda. All of the book sales return to the Ugandan authors to help support their organizations and girls’ scholarships.
This work is not about me. It is about the community members who are generous in sharing their life experiences with me. And if we can use those to build something helpful – to support a community organization, to keep one more child in school – then the research becomes truly meaningful.
Q. Personally, I was struck by how collaborative and internationally-focused your work is. What in your experience are the challenges or benefits of working closely with collaborators from other parts of the world?
A. My primary research topic, refugee resettlement, is by nature international. As I have studied the topic extensively in the US and New Zealand, working closely with colleagues in Canada, Australia, and the UK, I find cultural differences to be important in terms of learning best practices. My international colleagues add many insights to the research and make the research experience highly satisfying, with stronger results and conclusions. Just last week I flew to Hong Kong to consult with a colleague doing a comparative study on global education in three countries. Talking together about the data helped us to find more than the team found previously. I guess my current challenge is language, as I am not fluent in Japanese. But we are finding ways to overcome that, as my colleagues and participants here are better at English than I am at Japanese. Between all of us, we come to agreed understandings.
Image Credit: Jody McBrien