Alumni Profile: Kevin Pajaro-Mariñez, IRT ’15

Kevin Pajaro-Mariñez, IRT ’15 shares his journey with the IRT community in this interview with Brittany Zorn, IRT ’13, Arts and Sciences Programs Specialist, IRT

In an era when there is so much demand on our time, attention, and energy, nothing soothes the soul like returning to the simple pleasures life has to offer, like celebrating our community. Despite an endless and unprecedented amount of challenges this past year, there has also been an endless amount of accomplishments across the IRT alumni network. More broadly, there has also been an unprecedented amount of interest in issues of justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion (JEDI) in this country since the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmad Aubrey sparked a series of protests for racial justice last spring.

Continue reading “Alumni Profile: Kevin Pajaro-Mariñez, IRT ’15”

Profile: Hanna Garth, IRT ’06

Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology
University of California, San Diego

Hanna GarthThis fall I started my first year as a tenure track assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, San Diego. As I reflect back on my path, I am grateful for many things I learned through IRT. In addition to the obvious fee waivers and assistance with the application for graduate school, my participation in IRT taught me the enduring skill of creating a coherent narrative out of my broad interests and accomplishments.

I have taken a somewhat windy path to arrive at this point in my career. My exposure to IRT began with a presentation to my Mellon Mays cohort at Rice University. During my junior and senior year of college I was really unsure about what direction I wanted to take my future. I had started college as a Biochemistry major, interested in medical or pharmacy school, and changed my focus to medical anthropology after studying abroad in Chile during my junior year. In Chile I learned about Latin American socialism and redistributive justice. I had always been interested in issues of social justice, particularly racial and economic justice, and anthropology was a logical fit. The short span of time between discovering Anthropology and the deadlines for graduate school left me spinning with uncertainty, but excited about my very diverse research interests. I was torn between applying for Ph.D. programs and Master of Public Health programs, but in the end chose to pursue an MPH because I was unsure of what I would study in a Ph.D. However, shortly after starting my M.P.H. program, although I knew that I wanted to do work that would help alleviate or shed light on inequalities, it was clear to me that I wanted to pursue a more theoretical approach by way of a research career that was heavily ethnographic.

Once I was finally ready to apply for Ph.D. programs, I turned to IRT for guidance on the best way to frame my broad interests. How could I make my experience working in a drosophila lab, a volunteer trip to Haiti, and desire to better understand Marx into a story that made sense? It was through my experience with IRT that I first practiced the skill of building a narrative out of my broad range of interests and accomplishments. Although I still had not honed the skill of crafting a narrative in the short form of a cover letter and personal statement, I was able to connect my interests in social justice, structural violence and theoretical frameworks commonly used in anthropology. Later, once I was actually in graduate school I was able to merge my personal interest in food with my previous experiences and develop a dissertation project on food access in post-Soviet Cuba. Ultimately my doctoral work drew upon most of my previous work and both my scholarly and personal interests.

My graduate school applications were my first attempt to create a coherent narrative out of my previous experiences that made sense for a future research trajectory. What I did not realize then was that this skill of creating a narrative out of your experience is an enduring part of our work in academia; if the skill is well crafted it can be beneficial for many parts of academic life. Over the years, I would further hone my skills in crafting a story of my work in funding applications, in my proposal defense, and in postdoctoral and tenure track job applications. The craft of writing one page and two-page statements is a central element of academic life. I now see that this skill that I learned 10 years ago through IRT will be an essential asset as I move forward along the tenure track.

Profile: Alex Serna, IRT ’10

Master’s, Education; University of California, Los Angeles
Executive Director for Breakthrough San Juan Capistrano

photoThe ivory white dice bounced off the classroom wall. “Snake eyes!” I exclaimed as I won another quarter. It was 3rd period Geometry and my friend and I were enveloped in a game of dice while our teacher was talking about theorems in the background. I graduated high school with a 2.1 GPA. I never took the SAT. I never thought I’d ever graduate college. Frankly, I didn’t care. While both my parents, who emigrated from Mexico had high aspirations for my future, I thought college was a waste of time, partly because I thought I wasn’t capable of graduating. Six months from finishing high school I met my now wife and eight months later we found out we were going to be parents. We were both 17. Thirteen years later, Shalee and I have four daughters and I’m now the Executive Director for a college access, education nonprofit tasked with supporting students from backgrounds in underrepresented backgrounds starting in middle school become the first in their families to graduate college. An ironic outcome for someone whose college aspirations at one time were absent. During those internment years, I underwent a defying transformation and my summer at Andover as an intern with IRT dramatically shaped my pathway to graduate college, attain a master’s degree and lead an education nonprofit in the fight for educational equity.

The cool bay area breeze combed my hair as I walked to check the mailbox. We’d been in Berkeley for eight months finishing my junior year, the prospects of post-graduation looming in my mind. We were 21 years old, a family of five with two 1 year old twins and a 3 year old toddler and no idea what the next few years would entail. Shalee and I were the first in our families to attend college, getting to a 4-year university was challenging in itself, so graduate school was an even more elusive and unknown next step. During my undergraduate studies, I came to realize that I wanted to dedicate my life to education, more specifically I aspired to support other students like myself who struggled in school. I turned the mailbox key, discarded the ads and one envelope caught my attention. I could feel my stomach sink, warmth fill my face and my hands tremble holding a letter addressed by Phillips Academy Andover; the moment I realized I was accepted as a summer intern was the moment that I knew my eventual journey as an educator was solidified.

Sitting on the grass by Samuel Philips Hall, the humid summer air enveloping me as I was enveloped in one of our assigned readings preparing for the next day of seminar. The reader looking back at me like Mt. Everest ready to be climbed, the dread I felt thinking it wasn’t possible that I could get through this program in less than a month; but I did, and many had before and since. Besides, the lack of sleep, overwhelming feeling that never went away, thinking that I was chosen by mistake and would be discovered soon, a sense that this experience was all a dream and holding onto the idea that it was all for some future reason. My summer as an IRT intern dragged me outside of my sense of self, forcing me to realize that I belonged- that I was capable. I belonged in graduate school, I was capable of being a college graduate. I belonged in spaces of edification, I was capable of critical inquiry. I belonged and I was capable.

Alex Serna is an Executive Director for Breakthrough San Juan Capistrano, an education nonprofit with the mission to support students become the first in their families to graduate college. He has B.A in American Studies from UC Berkeley and a master’s degree in education from UCLA. He’s a 2017 New Leaders Council, Los Angeles fellow currently serving on the Millennial Commission on Education as a Senior Fellow. His thoughts on college access have been published in the Washington Post, The Hill, The Hechinger Report, Diverse Issues in Higher Education, NACAC Journal of College Admissions and the New Leader Journal of Generational Policy and Politics. 

Profile: Rolando Herts, IRT ’94, ’00

Director of The Delta Center for Culture and Learning at Delta State University
Executive Director of the Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area

headshotFinding Place and Authentic Life Purpose Through IRT

When people ask me where I am from, I tell them that I am not from anywhere in particular; that I am a placeless spirit traveling a serpentine path. Thankfully, IRT has guided my traveling spirit to places where it has been able to serve authentically and purposefully.

I wrote about place-seeking in “Sacred Ground, Traveling Light: Personal Reflections of University-Community Tourism Engagement,” which won the Best Treatise prize in IRT’s Impressions, Ruminations, Treatises: Essays on Intersectionality, Praxis, and the Educational Arena. The essay details how the serendipitous discovery of a historic black cemetery inspired meditations on my Rutgers doctoral research journey:

There are places where travelers go to renew their spirits, travelers like me who have stories and lessons of transformation to share. . . . we are fighting to tell the stories of spirits that came before us, stories that live on in places hidden and places found. At Lamington Black Cemetery, I found a reflection of my traveling spirit and the work that it must continue to do to give voice to communities that historically have not been heard. (pp. 65-66)

I did not realize, however, that “Sacred Ground” would transport me to the Mississippi Delta, a culturally rich yet economically impoverished region where heritage-based community empowerment is essential.

I owe much of who and where I am today to IRT. Indeed, IRT amplified my authentic life purpose through Impressions, Ruminations, Treatises. When “Sacred Ground” received the prize, I shared the news with mentors from Morehouse, The University of Chicago, and Rutgers. In addition to extending congratulations, external dissertation committee member, Dr. Luther Brown, confided that he was retiring from The Delta Center for Culture and Learning at Delta State University, an historically white institution in the Mississippi Delta that is now among the state’s most diverse.

The Delta Center is an interdisciplinary center of excellence that promotes greater understanding of the Mississippi Delta’s internationally significant cultural heritage contributions, including music, foodways, literature, and civil rights icons like Emmett Till and Fannie Lou Hamer. The Delta Center fulfills this mission through university-community tourism engagement, including the Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area with the National Park Service and the National Endowment for the Humanities “Most Southern Place on Earth” Institute.

Then came the ultimate surprise: Dr. Brown encouraged me to apply for his job based on my dissertation research and “Sacred Ground.” Months later, I departed Rutgers to become the director of The Delta Center and executive director of the Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area.

By leading The Delta Center, I am fulfilling the authentic life purpose articulated in “Sacred Ground.” For example, we created the Delta Jewels Oral History Partnership with Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Alysia Burton Steele. This cultural heritage interpretation project has engaged over 1,000 residents and visitors in honoring unsung African American church mothers from the Mississippi Delta who lived through the Jim Crow Era and the Civil Rights Movement. Delta State and the Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area received National Park Service Centennial Awards for collaboratively implementing this project with regional, statewide, and national partners, like the Smithsonian.

During a recent Delta Regional Authority leadership program at Harvard, my traveling spirit was compelled to visit IRT. Though Kelly Wise is retired and Asabe Poloma is at Brown, their passion for and commitment to IRT’s mission remain intact. This was clear interacting with Kate Slater, who graciously welcomed me back to the source that has connected so many of us to communities where we are fulfilling our authentic life purposes. Congratulations, IRT, for continuing to renew traveling spirits that empower voices in places where we serve.

Profile: Kirkland La Rue, IRT ’04

M.A.T. Child Development, Tufts University
Senior Kindergarten Gradehead, The Francis W. Parker School, Chicago, IL

photoDear IRT,

I don’t know if you have done the math, but I have.

This June marks our thirteenth anniversary. We never married, and we’ve never been much for ceremony for the sake of tradition. Yet, I was curious about what the traditional gifts might be. I was really hoping for paper. I still have my summer intern packets. They’re well worn now. The highlighter and pencil marks have faded a bit, but I fell in love with you over those bound pages, so paper would have been appropriate. Alas, the interwebs report that it’s lace for the thirteenth go around the sun. So instead, I’ve decided to write you a love letter.

When we met, you were the more experienced, the wiser half of our relationship. You knew more about the world. You knew yourself and were set in your mission. Quite simply: you wanted to change the world, making it a better, more equitable place for all students. You were passionate about changing the systems and structures that made it difficult for folks of color to enter the pipeline to the academy. And it was that mission, and your commitment to it, that caught my attention.

I, on the other hand, was still finding myself. I was young and naive: Neo before the red pill. Still, you saw something in me. You introduced me to your inner circle. Some of the folks had big names like Morrison and Dewey. Some were names that I grew to love like Freire and Anzaldúa. Then there were the fellow students who had fallen in love with you in earlier years, just as I had. Their work, in sum total, turned on switches and lights and bells inside of me that I hadn’t realized I possessed. In those sticky weeks of June and July, I realized just how much I shared many of your same missions and passions.

Since then, I’ve become a kindergarten teacher. In part, because I believe that the seeds of the conversations that we had in Andover have their antecedents in the circle time discussions of the five-year-old classroom. In working with young children, I get to turn on the switches, lights, and bells of equity and justice early. Knowing that there are many ways to walk through the world is a universal truth that everyone should learn early. The tools of combating injustice are forged while we are still young and primed to speak unfiltered about unfairness.

Somewhere along the way, I realized that I had more to offer than just my skills in the classroom. Maybe it was always there. Maybe it was all those times back when you pushed me to accept my place as a critical thinker and as a facilitator, I don’t know. But I began to seek out opportunities that allowed me to broaden my equity work. I coordinated professional development workshops for teachers to talk about their own racialized experiences and how those experiences influence their teaching. I participated in a school-wide study that examined the experience of its Black male students. I led a committee tasked with pushing overarching, school-wide diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts.

Today, in addition to my responsibilities in the classroom, I wear a number of different hats. I am a Lower School Diversity Coordinator at my current school home. I lead a monthly seminar for parents whose drive is to create positive school change through conversations about equity and diversity. I also have the privilege of sitting on the faculty of a leadership conference that brings together nearly 2,000 high school students from across the nation each winter.

The writer Alice Walker once spoke about the empowering act of decolonizing one’s spirit, the process by which we unpack and ultimately reject dominant narratives, rediscovering and reclaiming those parts of ourselves once written off as “unnatural”. You, IRT, are in the habit of holding up the mirror for students, bringing into focus all the beauty that has been drawn out of focus, telling us that we belong.

You gave me a gift of paper that summer thirteen years ago, IRT. I’ve been writing my own story on it ever since. In return, I hope you accept this gift of lace in the form of a love letter.