Faculty Spotlight: Desiree Zerquera

Desiree Zerquera worked in student affairs, higher education policy, and research before becoming a faculty member at the University of San Francisco (USF), and her experience led her to her current research focusing on universities in urban settings. Our conversation explored the intersections of academic policies, the effects on students, and the connections to USF.

Desiree Zerquera

How did you first become interested in research?

When I was in college, it really illuminated both that I was marginalized in classrooms–there weren’t a lot of people of color, there weren’t a lot of women in my math major–but then also recognizing the privilege that I had. There were microphones that I had that other people didn’t, so how can I best leverage those privileges so that they’re utilized for change? In my master’s program, I worked with faculty who really stimulated my curiosity and let me ask questions and find answers to those questions. I wanted to work in higher education to have a greater impact and see that impact through research. As I went into my PhD, I was really focused on how research can inform the policy arena because for me research was all about finding a way to change and inform change in the world.

What were some of the early questions when you were starting out?

My master’s thesis focused on Latinos in community colleges. There’s a lot happening with the Latino community, but I was disappointed that Latino’s were talked about in this really pan-ethnic way, absent of the diversity in experiences. I recognized my own privilege as the child of Cuban immigrants who were able to get political asylum when they came to the U.S., so their immigration journey was one of privilege even though we’re working class. I was aware that there’s something different for us than there is for other groups, and we should be paying attention to the differences to better serve Latino students.

What’s the shape that your research has taken now?

The work that I’ve done since really focused on these types of institutions that are in urban areas that do research, teaching, and service. They’re focused on serving their cities and urban students, and they see their identity as being part of those urban surroundings. There’s a growth of these institutions, which are called urban serving research universities.

What’s happened over time is this perpetual framing of these universities as being less than, but these are the universities that have traditionally served Latinos, African American and black students, and low-income students because they have this commitment to serve their urban surroundings. At the same time there’s this framing in higher ed of excellence and what excellence means, but that framing doesn’t value the contributions of urban-serving research universities. You don’t get a higher ranking for the number of Latino students or black students you graduate. You get a higher ranking for the number of students you say can’t come here. This framing doesn’t fit with what these institutions do. I look at the ways these institutions are stuck in this tension of serving this equity agenda while also trying to compete for prestige in this oppressive way.

Some of my work has looked at the relationships between pursuing excellence in this framework and what that has meant to access for Latino and black students. I’m talking to administrators in these contexts to better understand the balance that they try to achieve, to what extent is equity part of that conversation, and to what extent is it fitting within this dominant paradigm or is there reclaiming of this space to do it differently, which is essential for fighting the stratification of higher ed where students are funneled in particular ways away from opportunity.

What are your current projects?

In addition to the work with urban universities I just described, I’m also doing work with formerly incarcerated students, and I think about the consequences of policies that structurally keep people out and keep people down. They have to change their major so many times because they find out they won’t be able to get a job with their major because they have a criminal record, and they’re misinformed, miscounseled, and misguided about what opportunity looks like.

What I intend to do with that research is to create workshops for practitioners and write policy briefs that reach campus administrators as well as people in Sacramento.

How does policy factor into your research?

My work focuses on the structuring of opportunity, so I naturally look at policy—financial aid policy, admissions policies. Policy is central to my research, but I know if I’m publishing in an academic journal, chances are that policymakers are never going to see it.

When I say policy, I’m not just thinking of Sacramento—I’m thinking of people who are making policies that affect higher ed. For me, that includes my students working in student affairs. They’re making policies about college campuses, so I make a real effort to articulate my research in different venues. There are certain journals for associations like the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. I’ve published there intentionally because I want to reach people who are going to use this information in a way that benefits students.

How do your students inform your research and teaching?

I learn so much from students. I try to make spaces in the classroom where people are able to address issues that are relevant to them and apply the different frames and the different skills. The students I work with are doing work that matters.

I really appreciate that the students are working and directly applying what we’re talking about in their work settings, and they’re bringing the issues from work to class for us to talk about. I learn so much from their process. I learn what are issues of relevance based on what the students bring to the class discussion, and I just learn so much that I can take back and reflect on my own praxis as a researcher and how do I make this matter.

How do you bring your research into the classroom?

Before teaching, I remind myself of that ripple effect this class could have. The students want to be leaders in organizations—higher ed organizations, K-12 organizations, etc. I try to integrate organization theory with critical perspectives that reveal power structures and power dynamics. I want students to be able to navigate that world as well and to challenge it and push it, so when they’re making decisions, they can bring another perspective that asks critical questions. My students have to do papers that talk about problems and find solutions. My doctoral students write a traditional academic paper, op-eds, and an organizational report so they get three different types of writing. They need to know how to navigate these different worlds, to articulate their points of view, and how to advance our better understanding in those different arenas.

Since you inhabit all this knowledge of critical theory and ways of seeing systems, how do you know where to focus your research attention?

I’m in a privileged place where it’s my job to ask these questions. There are people who ask these questions everyday but they’re busy with putting out fires. This student just got evicted. That student no longer has financial aid. You have the practitioners doing that work. You have administrators who are dealing with how do we get enough money to keep the university going. If they don’t, then they won’t have a university to support anyone. You have all of these people that are in positions that don’t always enable them to think in this way, but I’m in a privileged space where it’s my job to think about these things. It’s not enough to write about these things in a journal that no one reads. It’s part of my responsibility to make sure that it’s articulated in ways that reach people.

How has being at the University of San Francisco affected your research?

At USF, there’s a lot of discourse about doing publicly engaged scholarship, so research that’s grounded in communities. That’s the same kind of conversation that’s happening at these universities. I see a lot of parallels between these institutions that are of real interest to me and the fulfillment of the Jesuit mission within the context of decreased financial resources. It overlaps with what I think about in my research—how do we make sure, that within all these discussions about our decisions for financial viability, for survival, that we’re also keeping focus on our social justice mission. I’d like to contribute to literature around Jesuit universities so we can learn from these urban-serving research universities to inform Jesuit universities.

How is your research connected to the USF community?

Thinking of my work with these urban serving research universities, I see direct connections with what I see happening at USF. USF has a strong social justice mission and also has pressures to survive. There’s always these tensions in admissions, tuition, the types of students that are targeted for recruitment, so I see the research helping me better understand. I bring that with me in my roles that I have on campus—understanding the tension and how USF is finding ways to survive and to better serve the students. USF is doing such important work collectively—administrators, faculty, students—and at the same time there are these really strong tensions and difficulties that need to be navigated. I think the greater challenge is figuring out how to do that well, how to be most impactful.

Faculty Spotlight: Kevin Lo

Kevin Lo’s cross-cultural research started with the exploration of his own ethno-cultural identity. During our discussion, we talked about interdisciplinary research, social media, and the conversations that inspire him.

Kevin Lo. Photo by Sara Fan

How did you first become interested in research?

My interest in research stems from thinking about my personal, ethno-cultural identity. I’m from Honolulu, Hawaii originally. I was born and raised there, and I’m ethnically Chinese. Obviously Hawaii is part of the US, so I’ve always had experiences in which I felt like I was a local person from Hawaii—not native Hawaiian, but local—American, and Chinese. Depending on the situational context, I would feel a little bit differently—more like I was from Hawaii, more like a Chinese person, more American. I was curious as to what created those differences.

How did you make the leap from your personal experience and this larger identity movement?

Once I became aware of my recurrent thoughts, I wondered, Why do I think like this? Why do I feel like this? Why as I was growing up did my parents say, “We do things this way,”the Chinese way of thinking and doing things? Don’t Chinese people come from China? We didn’t come from China. It was kind of putting these parts of personal identity together that gave me a context for understanding myself and thinking that I can’t be the only person who’s feeling like this.

How have your travels and experiences abroad affected your thought process and research around identity?

Travel gave me a platform for thinking about cross-cultural differences and eventually led me to pursue a degree in international management. As I pursued that degree, it was necessary to collect data and investigate different cultures, but then it also made sense for me to live abroad. I studied abroad in Beijing, China and in Taipei, Taiwan. My first academic job prior to coming here to University of San Francisco was at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. I feel that each of my experiences living overseas have given me insights into that culture as well as points of comparison for thinking about how each of those cultures differed from my perspectives, either growing up in Hawaii or being American.

Two of my early research interests remain current research interests. The first one was people’s use of time, both in organizations and socially. In Hawaii, there’s a slower pace of life. On the East Coast, I experienced the faster pace of life, and it became apparent that maybe Hawaii is not the norm. After living on the East Coast for a while, or even living in China, probably the most salient experience is to go back to Hawaii and feel very impatient when driving at 40 miles per hour down a freeway, which is the norm there. We drive slower, we don’t dart in and out through a crowd of people, you know, just kind of walking at the same pace as everybody else. One of my first research projects was on how people differ in their use of time and what implications that has for international work.

The other project revolves around Chinese American identity and expectations that people put on relationships. In Chinese, we refer to guanxi, which loosely translates to “relationships.” When we talk about business in English, we also talk about importance of networking. Relationships and guanxi are both important, but that doesn’t mean that networking and guanxi are the same thing. While relationships broadly defined are important in both cultural contexts, how you go about them is very different. People could very easily run into problems if they assume that they’re synonymous, not only linguistically, but also if they assume the behaviors associated with each are one and the same. My doctoral research started to tease apart those differences empirically. It’s complex because you’re talking about two very large cultural constructs. In addition, both economies are growing so quickly that what might have been characteristic of guanxi 10 or 20 years ago might not be the same anymore.

I’ve become interested in relationships on social media. Since coming to the University of San Francisco, one of my newer projects is on how business organizations use social media and how individuals use social media as well.

How did you become interested in the social media component of these interactions?

When Facebook was first available, I had an account. I was quite active on Twitter for a while. I don’t think that Instagram is most popular with my age demographic, but I’m still an avid Instagrammer. My interest is in how other people use social media—both in organizations but particularly cross-culturally as well. I think what I know anecdotally is that different platforms are more popular in certain cultures than in others.

I’m also very interested in the use of social media in the classroom and whether current students, because they’re digital natives, are genuinely interested in having their social media lives converge with their academic lives. There have been a lot of suggestions, pedagogically, for faculty to incorporate social media into their teaching. In the past, I’ve actually experienced quite a bit of resistance from students who say, “Yes, we are on Twitter and on Facebook, but we don’t want to be on Twitter or Facebook for class.” Some relationships are very specific and people keep those relationships compartmentalized. Students might maintain a Twitter account for engaging with their friends and maybe a few athletes, celebrities, or politicians, but that is going to be a socially specific or personally specific domain. They don’t want class-related communication rolled into that same Twitter account, and that’s a new phenomenon that has implications for teaching.

How do your students inspire your research?

The best experience that I could imagine would be having a class of students who represent many different cultures and we could talk about interpersonal relationships, use of time, and use of social media to gather stories. I can introduce both a theoretical concept that’s relevant to the class as well as some of the findings that my research has suggested and ask them what they think about it. Or perhaps my findings are already outdated because things change so quickly and that would give them a chance to respond and feel engaged with some of the most cutting edge findings.

How does your interdisciplinary background in business and psychology work together?

It’s part of who I am to choose an interdisciplinary field. I received a degree in international management, but it draws heavily from social psychology, cultural anthropology, and industrial-organizational psychology as well. I think that ultimately helps me be more rounded as a researcher—I can draw from other fields, have conversations with people in those fields, have dialogues that help inform my perspectives, and maybe link up with them for research collaborations.

Sometimes it makes it a little harder because it’s a small discipline unto itself but one that tries to enter other disciplines that are much larger. This is really where I want to sit as a researcher, so I accept that these are some of the challenges as an interdisciplinary researcher. I think it’s really important as a researcher to find topics that are stimulating. I would rather take something that really piques my interest and round it out by drawing from several different fields.

For example, not all disciplines conceive of culture in the same way, and I recently experienced these differences in trying to get some research that a colleague and I had done on organizations’ use of social media. That was targeted for intercultural communications journals, which is not my direct discipline. I think there’s a part of communication literature that I certainly understand, but the way that management academics talk about culture and the way that communication scholars talk about culture are quite different.

Here at our school of management, there are quite a few interdisciplinary researchers. We might have a degree or an area, but we’ll branch out and try to publish work in other related areas. Being here, I don’t feel like it’s a journey I’m trying to forge by myself.

How is your research playing out at USF?

One of the perks of being an interdisciplinary researcher is that it’s easy for me to join in conversations at various parts of the university. Here in the School of Management, my department is called Organization, Leadership, and Communication. In some universities, it’s called the Organizational Behavior Department, maybe the Management Department. I can have conversations with International Business. I can have conversations with our Communications Department within Arts and Sciences. If faculty at the School of Education are interested in culture as a variable, then I probably have complementary interest to some of the work that they’re doing. There are a lot of people across university, not strictly in the School of Management, who are interested in similar topics.

How does being in San Francisco impact how you do research?

This is one of the major cities in the US that lends itself to simulating cross-cultural perspectives. When thinking about my research, I don’t feel like I have to go too far to have those same personal experiences that I might have to go to another country to acquire. By the same token, I make a case to my students if I’m talking about cross-cultural differences that you don’t need to go overseas or abroad. Look at how diverse our city  is. You can go down the street and have a cross-cultural interaction that you don’t quite get and want to examine more closely. San Francisco informs my research because of its diversity.

Do you continue to do a lot of traveling for your research?

When I go abroad, I try to think about what am I feeling and what am I experiencing that might be rooted in cultural differences. I’ve come across the broad dimension of culture that stimulates my interest most intensely. If I could sit down with a local in another country, I would talk about their concept of time and relationships. It’s the personal experience of conversations that prompt me to think about research.

Faculty Spotlight: Dean Rader

Dean Rader’s writing spans poetry, painting, literary criticism, and translation. During our conversation, we discussed landscape, identity, and research. On the sunny windowsill was The Emily Dickinson Reader  by Paul Legault.

Dean Radar. Photo by Shawn Calhoun

How did you first become interested in research?

I fell in love with researching as an undergraduate. I loved going to the library and wandering around the stacks. I was the research assistant for the poet at our university, and part of my duties was making copies of poems and articles for the classes he was teaching. So, when I made copies for him, I would also, secretly, make copies for myself! Thus began a life of research, reading, and compiling.

Once I became a professor, I expanded the way I integrated research and writing. I was writing poems, doing translation, and writing literary criticism. I found that research made its way into all three, though a little differently depending on the genre. I love wearing many writerly hats, and research helps ensure I look less goofy in each.

How do you navigate different writing identities?

I don’t always think about a genre—at least not as first—when I’m thinking about writing. Usually there’s some sort of problem that I want to solve or some idea I want to explore. When I sit down to start “writing,” I don’t know if it’s going to be an essay or poem or perhaps even the makings of a scholarly article. For me, my hat as a poet and my hat of a critic are often very similar hats, just never berets.

All of the poems in Landscape, Portrait, Figure, Form are about art, use the vocabulary of art, or explore the ways the vocabulary of art and poetry overlap and intersect. For example, terms like “figuration,” “portrait,” “line,” and “grammar” are used in both art and poetry. My interest in the ways written text and visual text talk to each other spills over into other things I write about.

I was recently asked to contribute a long essay for an art exhibit catalogue since I have this poetic interest in landscape. My task was to write about landscape painting, which, I don’t mind saying, was really out of my comfort zone. I did a lot of research on the history of landscape painting and found correspondences with pastoral poetry. And, before I knew it and sort of by accident, I had a way into the topic. Now, I’m writing about the Robert Motherwell exhibit at the de Young Museum. Motherwell is the American painter most influenced by poetry; I’m thinking about the different kinds of visual (and lexical) grammars.

Do you find that you’re drawn to specific elements of the landscape or history of landscape?

I think that landscape painting is in some ways the most literary of paintings. There are often horizontal lines like in a book. I was always attracted to how the poetic line stretches across the page; its ability to live on a page the way paint might live on a canvas. It’s hard to explain it less abstractly than that except to say that my interest in landscape is both formal—how things look on a canvas or on a page—but it’s also interpretive. Writing is often about how we take in the world, how we see ourselves placed in context, how one paints one’s place, how one writes oneself into a world.

In my forthcoming book, Self-Portrait as Wikipedia Entry, there are several poems that carry the title “Self Portrait,” often something like “American Self-Portrait” or “Self-Portrait with Reader.” They don’t always have much to do with “me,” but they do explore how the speaker of the poem might be misplaced in a landscape or perplexed in a situation. I think that portraiture, especially self-portraiture, is an interesting way of pretending to write about the self while actually writing about other things; or to be more precise, how the self can look both inward and outward. Landscape can refer to both internal and external landscapes; identity can refer to both individual and national notions of self. I’m very interested in this notion of identity being formed in relation to what’s around you. Perhaps the best way to write about or illustrate the self is to write about or illustrate what’s around the self.

How does translation or working with translation impact other aspects of writing and research?

I was on sabbatical last year, and a former University of San Francisco student, Katie Jan, and I collaborated on a translation of Pablo Neruda’s long poem The Heights of Macchu Picchu. We read what Neruda had written about the poem, we read every translation of the Alturas we could find, and we read what critics had written about the poem—all in order to get things right. We relied on research to help us latch onto rhythm, a political angle, and moments of social commentary. Translation is about being precise, and I think this is what research is also about—precision. Getting things right. That’s what good writing is about. Research moves you closer and closer to the target, decreasing the chance you will miss wildly.

What is the relationship between your research and your writing and your writing and your research?

After you get to a certain point in your career as a reader and writer, it’s hard to know what’s research and what’s not research. Going to a film or going to the ocean might be research the same way as poring over books and articles is research. Hanging out with my kids I think is a kind of research. Just the other day, I was reading a children’s book to my three year old, and the narrative in the story did something clever. I thought you know what I’m going to write a poem that does this very trick. For a writer, life is research. I know that in my head the research switch is never turned off.

How does research work with teaching and vice versa?

I do a lot of research for my classes. When I teach literature classes, I read a great deal of literary criticism on the texts I’m teaching as well as relevant literary theory and poetic theory. Last year, I taught a class on 21st Century American Literature. Everything we read had been published since 2001—poetry, fiction, and non-fiction. One of the things that made teaching this class difficult is that it was nearly impossible to do research on the books because only one or two had been out long enough for scholars to write about them. So, on many days, I felt like I was flying blind.

Prepping for class—whether it’s re-reading, consulting scholarly texts, looking over all your notes—all goes into what I think of as the research bucket. You have this bucket and every time you read a poem it goes in there. Every time you try to explain an Emily Dickinson poem to your students, it somehow goes in there. Every student paper you read goes in there. Every crazy idea you have about literature goes in there. Everything is in the research bucket—everything you think about, every place you go, all the photographs you take, it’s all in there. You don’t always know when you’re going to need those things as a writer or teacher, but one day, you will be teaching some obscure poem, and something you saw in a museum twelve years ago will be there in your bucket to help you not look like a bonehead in front of your students. I think all of that is part of what it means to be a thoughtful teacher and a careful writer.

There’s a great quote that I use in my Engaged Resistance book. A well-known art critic argues that there’s really no difference between art and non-art. For me, there is no real difference between research and non-research. Even if the content of the research winds up irrelevant, the process of combing through and discarding things—that glorious act of culling—is a creative process.

What are you working on right now?

I’ve got another book of poems, Self-Portrait as Wikipedia Entry, coming out next year with Copper Canyon Press, and I’m finishing up final edits on that. I’m writing about the Robert Motherwell exhibit that’s at the de Young. I have this idea for this half-scholarly / half-popular book on how to read poetry that could be used as a textbook or as a book a general reader might pick up and subsequently ignore. I just sent off the final version of an essay on Wallace Stevens and contemporary poetry that is forthcoming in American Poet, and I’m deep in a collaborative book I’m very excited about. Over the past two years, the poet Simone Muench and I have been writing collaborative poems we’re calling “The Frankenstein Sonnets.” A book of the poems, entitled Suture, will appear in 2017 from Black Lawrence Press. We’ve decided what poems will go in, but we are playing with organization and order. We’re picking out cover images now. We’ve narrowed things down to some beautifully spooky ones.

How does working on the poetry guide change how you talk about poetry or reading poetry?

My thoughts about writing poems and writing about poems are evolving together. Increasingly I’m thinking about ways to write poems that poets would like, respect and respond to and that non-poets would like, respect and respond to. The potential audience of poetry is larger than most people think. I am constantly wondering how I can enlarge the pool. It’s an uphill battle. I keep trying to convince people that they do not need to fear getting poems wrong. They should just concentrate on enjoying them. My hope is that my poems and my writing about poetry will draw people to the field.

What are some other questions that you find yourself thinking about?  

Lately, I’ve been thinking about if there’s a way to make poems have an immediate visceral impact the way powerful paintings do. When you go into the SFMoMA (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) or the Met and see a Van Gogh or a Goya or a Pollock, there is an instant effect. For me, it’s Motherwell, Paul Klee and Jaune Quick-To-See Smith. When I look at works by these painters, I feel an immediate emotional and intellectual sensation. It is instant, and it goes beyond simple thinking. We don’t obsess over what a Monet painting means or if we’re getting a Miro painting wrong. We just enjoy them. I’m jealous of a painter’s ability to take up a room and have that immediate impact. I’ve been thinking about ways to make poetry approximate that.

My other obsession is whether literature can have any kind of social and political impact. I try to get at this in a book I edited last year, 99 poems for the 99 Percent: An Anthology of Poetry. Can people turn to poetry as a way to help make sense of pressing social issues like poverty, repossession, unemployment? Can poetry be a viable genre for commenting on and offering insight into our social dilemmas? That’s really an ongoing question for me. Just last week, I was invited to help put together an anthology of poems about gun violence.

Lastly, I always wonder about the relationship between writing and other aspects of living? Does writing and reading make you a better human? I hope so. If they make you worse, I’m in trouble…

How does your writing interact with the world?

As I said earlier, the poems in my new book simultaneously look inward and outward. There are poems that intervene in recent American history; poems that confront racial and gun violence, economic issues, environmental questions, and a seemingly fading memory of the past. There are a series of poems with the title “American Allegory” and a series entitled “American Self-Portrait” as well as some called “American Landscape.” These poems argue that how we make the self—how we fashion the internal landscape—is similar to how we make a nation—how we fashion the external landscape.

Last year I wrote a poem called “Labor.” It’s probably the longest poem I’ve ever written and one of the most personal. When I was 14, I was a carhop at the Sonic Drive-In in Weatherford, Oklahoma, a small farm town out in Western Oklahoma. The poem is about a confluence of events involving bringing Cokes and tater tots to a father and daughter who realize they don’t have enough money to pay for their order and a horrible accident on an oil rig outside of my hometown. These things come together along with my ongoing fear that what I do might not be considered “work” by the people in that very town. My “labor” involves crouching over a notebook or sitting in front of a computer screen, trying to wrestle language and ideas into something meaningful and perhaps even beautiful, which is very hard but very different from working on an oil rig. In my hometown, most people, including my family, would be skeptical of writing a poem being “work.” It is certainly a hugely different kind of labor. I’m always aware of that.

Do you feel a relationship with your work and your hometown?

I’ve found myself writing more and more about Oklahoma lately. I’m collaborating with the great Choctaw poet and fiction writer LeAnne Howe, who is also from Oklahoma. She and I are and trading poems and letters about Oklahoma. We’re both lamenting Oklahoma’s great devolution. The state is in a terrible mess. When I was the age of my sons, the state was much different. Its slow slide into poor health, poor schools, and poor social programs is beyond tragic.

Now that I have kids, I’m thinking more about my own childhood. My childhood could not be more different than the one my kids have. I think rural Oklahoma would be a hard place to live now; so I’m nostalgic for the Oklahoma that I love, angry about the Oklahoma that is there now, and curious about what can be done.

The most personal poem in my forthcoming book is about Oklahoma. I don’t know if anyone from my home state will read it, but I suppose the poem, called “Geographic Self-Portrait” (which was inspired by a poem about Indiana by USF poet Bruce Snider) is a sort of love song to the Oklahoma I used to love.

Does landscape factor into this process?

Yes. Perhaps. I often wonder if where I live in the city, The Richmond, influences how often I think about the landscape of Oklahoma. I see the ocean every day, and in San Francisco, the ocean most resembles the wheat fields of western Oklahoma. I grew up seeing this wavy landscape stretch out in front of me. For me, landscape is always a nearly empty, wavy horizon. Here, when I go out to the ocean, the rippling waves look a lot like the wheat rippling in the Oklahoma wind. For whatever reason I always remember looking west, perhaps that was where the world flattened out a little. This meant I was often looking toward the sunset. When I go to Ocean Beach, I am always looking toward the sunset. Directionally, from a topographical perspective, the ocean and the wheat field are shockingly similar.

Faculty Spotlight: Lois Ann Lorentzen

Lois Ann Lorentzen’s research and activist work has taken her to Mexico and El Salvador. During our conversation, we discussed how her experience as an activist and wilderness guide contributes to her work as an academic.

Lois Ann Lorentzen. Photo by Shawn Calhoun

How did you first get interested in research?

While studying for master’s degree in California, I was homesick for Minnesota. My master’s had been in Philosophy and Theology, which was very abstract, very intellectual. I loved it, but I really wanted to do something that was more activist and hands on. I saw a Time magazine, and the cover was a boat of refugees in the sea by Vietnam. I found out that Minnesota was a huge destination for migrants and refugees because we have really good social services. In Minnesota, I worked in refugee resettlement with Vietnamese refugees who were coming to the U.S. and with Cambodians who had survived the genocide. It was hands on work—getting people jobs and places to live. Later I realized I could study and research things that I was passionate about, and the last ten years of my career have focused on migration and refugee issues. I feel fortunate to have life passions and research and teaching all fit together.

How did that experience translate into your research?

I became involved in activism against the war in El Salvador. I got to know Salvadorans and activists, and some of the Salvadorans I met said, “You should just go to El Salvador.” I went to El Salvador and realized that this could be my research as well as where I work. For years, I went back and forth. I was studying Salvadoran migration to the U.S. because a fifth of the country left, but I also looked at environmental damage caused by the war. I had been a wilderness guide before my earlier degree, so I had been involved in environmentalism. I had two research focuses—one on the environment and another on immigration. They both came out of life experience.

Do you feel like the role of an activist and the role as an academic are separate roles or interrelated roles? What are those intersections?

They’re separate for me in terms of time. When I’m teaching, when I’m doing research, I don’t have much time to be engaged in communities. When I was working with refugees, it was so intense. There was no time to think, which is why I wanted to do research and become an academic. I thought a lot of the problems I was seeing was because people hadn’t been thoughtful and hadn’t done research to develop policy. In that sense, they’re separate because we’re limited in time and energy.

They’re interrelated in that I think good research can help us understand social problems, and the more you understand root causes, the better you can develop policy and interventions to help address them. They come together in teaching because students aren’t necessarily going to leave college and become a graduate student, but if my teaching is based on very solid research, when they go out and do whatever they’re going to do, hopefully they can do it more thoughtfully.

What are you focusing on in your research?

I have two main projects—one that has been ongoing and one that is relatively new. I’m part of a research network of Jesuit universities on migration, and I have a project with researchers from Guatemala, Mexico, and Chicago. We’ve been doing research on the Arizona-Mexico border in Nogales, Arizona looking at human rights abuses and people who are trying to cross, who’ve been deported, who have been in detention centers. We’ve been looking at different agencies, many faith-based or religious, that are trying to meet some of these needs. If it weren’t for religious groups, there would be not many services for migrants.

In Mexico, there are shelters along a route where migrants from Central America cross Mexico on top of a train and it’s super dangerous.  Almost all of the shelters are run by religious groups—mainly Catholics in Mexico. I hadn’t thought about that going into this research. I was researching immigration and then it became obvious that religion was really important in the lives of many migrants. If you don’t have documents in the U.S., you might be afraid to go to a government service, but you wouldn’t be afraid to go to a Spanish-speaking Catholic church with undocumented migrants in the parish

Another research project is less mainstream. Ten years ago in San Francisco, our research team met a group of transgender sex workers from Mexico who would move back and forth between Guadalajara and San Francisco. They’d come here to make money to either get operations or to go back to Guadalajara. In their rooms—they all lived in the hotels in the Tenderloin—they would have altars with a statue of  Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico; usually a statue of St. Jude, who is for lost causes; and then this other figure of Santa Muerte, who’s also known as Holy Death. I never heard of her, so for ten years, I’ve been sort of obsessed with finding out about her.

When I went to Mexico, I tried to learn more about her. This was quite a while ago and no one wanted to talk about her. Since then, she’s become enormously popular. There are millions and millions of followers now throughout Mexico. They have masses to her, and she’s popular with migrants. Since she is seen as death, she’s popular with people with precarious lives because she represents that liminality of understanding death and understanding how dangerous their lives are.

I’m researching why governments are afraid of her. In 2009, the Mexican government ordered their military to bulldoze all the shrines to her along the U.S.-Mexico border. The first article written in English about her was commissioned by the U.S. Department of Defense because she was also associated with narco traffickers, but that’s sensationalized. Yes, you can find her there, but you can also find her in migrants’ homes. Most recently, I found FBI training manuals where they have workshops because supposedly agents freak out when they go to a crime scene and they see Santa Muerte. I’ve just started thinking about it. Why does a government get involved with a kind of alternative saint? Why does the Mexican government or the FBI care about her?

What are the intersections that you see between your projects?

Some of the people who cross wear Santa Muerte necklaces or charms or they’ll carry little statues of her. Some of the people on the border might be worshippers, so I might talk to them as well. Surprisingly, some of the police in Mexico who might harass migrants are also worshippers because they’re in a risky job as well. They’re separate projects, but at times they’ll intersect.

What are you hoping to contribute to the conversation?

Most people don’t want to migrate, but they’re forced. So what are the best ways to address that at the root level? Why are people leaving? What are the root causes? What are structural issues to look at? What are the violations? When I teach, I don’t necessarily tell students what I think policy should be, but no matter what policy you have, human rights violations should not happen.

How do you bring research into the classroom at the University of San Francisco?

I’m fortunate at USF because I’ve been able to teach what I want, and it’s valued here. I’ve taught classes on environmental ethics, on religion and the environment. I know the good scholars, I know the best things for students to read. Because of my research in San Francisco, I might take students on field trips or to different communities. I think if you’re engaged in your research then you know the questions to ask, you know what should be taught, you know who they should be reading.

How do you work with students to help them develop their own research skills?

Next fall, USF is starting a masters program in Migration Studies. I’ll be teaching research seminars, and students will be doing original research. Students spend the first semester here, the second semester in Mexico, and the summer in between in internships or fieldwork. We can place students all over the world in migration areas to do research because of the Jesuit network. Then they spend the last year back here. Obviously migration is a huge issue now, so our main goal is to train professionals to be able to better the lives of migrants by being grounded in good research and good knowledge. At USF, we have a lot of depth of experience in migration.

How did you end up at USF?

At the Jesuit University in San Salvador, six Jesuits were assassinated by the military as well as their housekeeper and their daughter during the war. I used to spend a lot of time at that university and think, “What is this like for students to know that their faculty were just murdered for speaking the truth?” The Jesuits made this big impact on me. When I was looking for jobs, there was this job at this Jesuit university in Philadelphia. I thought, “Jesuits, they’re cool,” so I took that job. I liked it. I was there for 3 years, but I was really, really homesick for the West because there’s wilderness and I had been a wilderness guide. I saw the job at a Jesuit university in San Francisco. It was like a dream come true. A lot of the Salvadoran activists I knew and friends from my mountain climbing days lived in San Francisco. I just packed everything in my little red pickup and drove across the country and I’ve been here for 24 years.

Do you have a favorite wilderness spot that you like to go to?

My old wilderness guide friends, several of us have this one spot in the Sierra Nevada that’s very remote. It’s like our dream spot in the world. It’s on the east side of the Sierra Nevada. You go out of Bridgeport, you go hike the mountains, you go off the trail, and that’s all I’ll tell you.