This is the last of a three-part series about McNair Scholars who participated in a 2013 Summer Research Service Experience (SRSE) in Argentina. McNair Scholars come from low-income and/or first-generation families, or from other underrepresented groups in higher education. Funded partly through the federal government’s TRIO program and partly through DePaul, the competitive program prepares students for doctoral work and faculty careers. Read the previous entries here and here.
As a native Spanish speaker who spent her childhood in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, and El Paso, Texas, it’s not surprising that language issues were the least of Vierelina Fernández’s concerns when she arrived in Argentina with the SRSE program. But the senior international studies and Latin American and Latino studies double major soon realized the naiveté of assuming language as a shared commonality.
“My preconceived notions of what it means to speak Spanish were challenged by the accent and slang particular to Argentinians,” she says. In a move that speaks volumes about Fernández, she turned this potential difficulty into an opportunity for reflection and growth. “During my time in Argentina, my prior ideas and worldviews were challenged and complicated,” she asserts, referencing student politicization as another concept that she now views in a new light. “It taught me the humility to accept that we are all the products of particular upbringings and conditions, making us inevitably the carriers of distinct worldviews.”
Luciano Berardi (CSH MA ’10, PHD ’12), director of the McNair Scholars program, emphasizes that this perspective shift is central to the SRSE model. “Nearly everyone who has had an international experience develops an appreciation for diversity and a clear view of their own national and cultural biases and assumptions,” he says. Since study abroad programs disproportionately serve white and affluent students, the SRSE is an effort both to widen the doors of opportunity and to influence the future conversation. “It is clear that more programs offering community psychology training to underrepresented groups, like the SRSE, are needed not only to close the social inequality gaps in global education, but also to diversify the pool of future community psychology PhDs with international experiences,” Berardi says.
Fernández’s own research topic focused on theories of privilege. She asked whether perceptions of privilege and discrimination in Buenos Aires differed from those in General Roca. “I was led to this question after noting that the scholarly literature on this topic spoke of discrimination practices as if they were homogenous phenomena nationwide,” Fernández explains. She suspected that the composition of each city, and in particularly, the high concentration of indigenous populations in General Roca, could affect residents’ opinions on race and social class.
To investigate this hypothesis, Fernández implemented surveys, engaged in enthnographic field research and led focus groups. It was a great deal of work—for the focus groups alone, she transcribed and translated the recordings from Argentinian Spanish to Mexican Spanish and then into English—but Fernández is pleased with the outcome. “I gained confidence in myself as a researcher,” she says. “Now I have two potential publications.” Indeed, Fernández’s hunch turned out to be correct: “My findings suggest that the degree of racial homogeneity in a region affects the perceptions individuals have on notions of privilege and discrimination.”
Before Fernández was even accepted at DePaul, she knew she wanted to major in international studies. But her reasons for becoming a McNair Scholar go further. “I have a desire to help create positive change in the world on a larger scale,” Fernández asserts. “Only by joining the intelligentsia will I have the necessary know-how to create any real change.” Even when Fernández was commuting three hours each day while juggling classes and McNair Scholars programming, she knew that a dedicated team of supporters, mentors and colleagues stood by ready to listen, lend a hand and compare notes. “I went from an undergraduate student ignorant of the term ‘IRB’ [Institutional Review Board] to a researcher working closely with faculty mentors through the IRB process,” she says. “The entire experience was eye-opening.”