Student Spotlight: Theresa Rocha Beardall

Theresa Rocha Beardall, Sociology

What is your area of research? Why is this research important?

I am a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate in sociology studying race, policing, and inequality. My dissertation research explores two critical constraints on police behavior using an organizational, employer-employee perspective: police union contracts and copwatching networks. First, I examine how the collective-bargaining table is an important, yet understudied, site for communities to demand legal accountability in matters of police misconduct. I have also begun to examine the role of organized, community-level networks that work to influence and hold accountable the behavior of police within their neighborhood. Understanding how and why police misconduct persists is important to the safety and vitality of all communities. But understanding how and why marginalized populations continue to disproportionately experience, and actively resist, this kind of state violence is incredibly important to how we come to understand ways to envision and build a more just society.

What inspired you to choose this field of study?

My passion for sociology and my dissertation research on are both driven by my family history. Born to an American Indian mother and Mexican father I came to higher education with a keen sense of the personal decisions that brought my parents together in the borderlands between San Diego and Tijuana. Less clear to me, however, were the social and institutional forces that intersected to make me a first-generation high school graduate. In college I chose coursework to help me understand whether it was my family’s poverty, citizenship status, or routine interactions with law enforcement that shaped each of my siblings so differently. My B.A. training in Latino/a Studies and American Indian Studies helped me to identify and analyze several core issues in the sociological study of inequality, but I would not understand how to translate this knowledge into a social science research agenda until much later.

In fact, it was not until my M.A. degree at UCLA that I discover edsociology and the world of empirical research. At UCLA, I specialized in American Indian Studies and federal Indian law and chose to write my thesis on the formation of a new California tribal court system. So, like any diligent student, I sorted through stacks of methodological textbooks to prepare myself for the daunting task of designing a study. As I read and learned, it was the sociological approach to empirical studies that stuck with me. I could see right way that social science methods would help me to better explore aspects of legal consciousness and inequality not described in the case law. I was also preparing to go to law school at this time so these books immediately began to reshape my outlook on social change, and in time, my desire for graduate training in both law and sociology.

How has your background influenced your scholarship?

Because of my family history and the fact that I study social and legal inequalities, it is really hard to see where my background has not influenced my scholarship. From my work in federal Indian law to copwatching networks, my family’s experiences shape how I come to ask the kinds of research questions that I do. My family’s worldview and multiple ways of knowing and interpreting the world around them has also shaped the kinds of diverse methods and sources of data that I seek. And although my siblings, parents, and grandparents may not see themselves as social activists, their commitment to advocate for change against the causes and consequences of inequality inspire me to develop my understanding of where and how marginalized populations are working to create positive social change on some of the nation’s most pressing social issues.

What else has influenced your thinking as a researcher or scholar?

In addition to my family and community, my law degree deeply influences how I think about, study, and research systems of power and inequality. Aspects of the important research, writing, and thinking skills I developed during this time are identifiable in my sociological research and teaching at Cornell. In fact, I regularly incorporate case law and oral arguments into my course syllabi to introduce undergraduates how one might think “with the law” alongside our classical empirical studies on multiple forms of social inequality. I owe a lot of my fun, fast, hands-on teaching style, however, to my K-12 teacher training and former colleagues and students. It was an honor to begin my teaching career in a high-needs high school with students and staff that taught me so much about how to build inclusive, rigorous learning communities. These students and colleagues remain lifelong friends even today!

I understand that not only are you in the 2017-2018 cohort of the NextGen Professors Program, but that you helped to start this program. Can you describe what inspired you and what that process was like? 

NextGen Professors is an exciting new campus program designed to educate and empower underrepresented doctoral students and postdocs primarily from backgrounds underrepresented in the academy as we work hard to join the professoriate and become successful junior faculty. My relationship to the seeds of this effort began way back during my first year on campus. After arriving to Cornell, I became fast friends with so many brilliant graduate students across every inch of this campus. Many of us who are underrepresented in our departments and disciplines began working together through several student and campus organizations with the hope of building a more inclusive, supportive Cornell. While our research interests and personal backgrounds differed a great deal, we united under a vision of mutual support and continue to advocate and encourage one another even now. During social events and meetings between organization such as the Latin@ Graduate Student Coalition (LGSC), Black Graduate & Professional Student Association (BGPSA), the Indigenous Graduate Student Association (IGSA), and the Diversity and International Student Committee (DISC), the program need began to take shape. DISC hosted several town hall-style dinners to solicit input from our campus community about areas of concern to graduate students, and the desire to build a program that invested in the professional success of current Cornell students and postdocs continued to take shape.

As is the case with collaborative, multi-faceted work, some of us pursue one issue while others press on with other important measures. The creation of NextGen Professors meant a lot to me because I am always working to make my campus community a more positive, affirming space for other students who will come here to study and lead after our cohort graduates. So I stuck with it and it has been a privilege to work with the Graduate School Office of Inclusion and Student Engagement and CU-CIRTL, along with so many other passionate advocates across the Cornell campus as we brainstormed, designed, and launched this important program. I even got a little misty-eyed when I walked into my first cohort meeting and had the chance to meet all of the incredible scholars that were selected. To watch a joint-effort of this magnitude move from a conversation among close friends to a vibrant Graduate School initiative is pretty incredible.

What do you hope to learn and achieve in your time with the NextGen Professors Program? What do you hope other participants take away from the program? 

Hands down, I hope to learn with and from my cohort mates about their successes and setbacks as we each prepare ourselves for a faculty position. Each selected applicant brings a unique and necessary set of life experiences and skills to this group, and I have already learned so much from them about how to activate colleague networks and how to better serve our students as we grow in our teaching. This second question is so big, but my answer is really outlined well in the four focus areas outlined on our program website. In addition, I sincerely hope that meaningful friendships and opportunities for new, exciting scholarship emerge among us all as we grow into our new roles.

Why did you choose Cornell to pursue your degree? 

I chose Cornell for several personal and academic reasons. The sociology department is well known for its commitment to the study of inequality and the Center for the Study of Inequality (CSI) was an incredible draw. In addition to a strong home department, I was searching for universities where I could build an eclectic, creative community with others that also study law, race, Latina/o Studies, and American Indian and Indigenous Studies from a transdisciplinary perspective—Cornell is exactly that place and I am a better scholar because of my cross-campus relationships. And for those who are familiar with New York history, Cornell is located in my traditional Haudenosaunee (Iroquois Confederacy) homelands. Having been born and raised in California among a supportive Latino and Urban Indian community, it was really important to me that I also dedicate a significant part of my life living and learning from my Native community here too.  

What’s next for you? 

Writing, writing, and more writing as I work through my research and on toward publications! Each step of my academic training, however, has always been in service of achieving my personal goal of becoming a university professor. My students and colleagues know that I commit so much to making sure that my students thrive in the classroom in a way that both challenges and respects each of the unique set of life experiences that they bring to our campus. I am excited to bring my passion for research, teaching, and service to the job market very soon!

Any advice for incoming graduate students?

Because of my various degrees and disciplinary trainings, I have been a graduate student for a long time and can offer so much in terms of choosing programs, research interests, or raising a family and working while in graduate school. There are lots of “practical advice” guides online so I would like to focus my advice on the importance of building a diverse intellectual community. So first and foremost, find your people! Whatever this may mean for you in terms of personal hobbies, relationship status, place of origin, research interests, and your multiple social identities. Surround yourself with those that inspire and challenge you to be your best self. Build community with these many mentors by being an active listener, by serving where and when you can, and by sharing in their passions too. Graduate school is an amazing time to invest in ourselves and in building our skills, but I have always found that my service to others and my cultivation of diverse relationships with neighbors and scholars in very different disciplines has been essential in my professional success.

Interview by Sally Kral, communications and outreach assistant in the Graduate School