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Undergraduate Research: Growing through Learning

June 10, 2020

Undergraduate engagement is foundational to the Department of Chicano & Latino Studies. Now, CLS is being recognized for its contributions to the CLA Dean’s First Year Research and Creative Scholars Program, known as DFRACS. 

This invitation-only scholarship experience offers first-year students the opportunity to work one-on-one with faculty members on their research projects. This year, CLS has provided research opportunities to four students. The DFRACS program provides more than just research; it creates meaningful connections between students and faculty as well. 

So what makes first-year research so formative? Students Mia Benson and Laura Kasella share their experiences as researchers, how it shaped their first year at the University of Minnesota, and share their advice to other DRACS students. Department Chair Karen Mary Davalos shares her insight as a research mentor in the DFRACS program and speaks to how research enriches students’ experience. 

Portrait of Laura Kasella

Laura Kasella

DFRACS participant Laura Kasella is pursuing a double major in history and Spanish & Portuguese. As a transfer student, Kasella had the opportunity to participate in research revolving around cultural appropriation and the roots of colonization in Mexico with Dr. Gabriela Spears-Rico during her first year at UMN. This research informed her learning going forward at the U and into her year abroad in Portugal. 
What was your initial reaction when you got an invitation to participate in the DFRACS program? 
My initial reaction upon receiving the invitation to participate in the DFRACS program was disbelief and then immediately excitement! I was in disbelief because as an undergraduate student, scholarships and research opportunities can be few and far between and are typically highly competitive positions. 
As one of only twenty transfer students to be offered this opportunity, I felt extremely excited. Not only would I be receiving a scholarship for my first spring semester at the University of Minnesota, but I would become a research assistant at one of the top research universities in the country alongside a distinguished CLA professor. 
What was it like to work so closely with a CLA professor?
Working alongside Dr. Gabriela Spears-Rico was a highly motivating and formative undergraduate experience. She challenged me to think critically, read complex and interdisciplinary texts, and motivated me to uphold her degree of academic writing. 
While I spend the year studying abroad in Coimbra, Portugal and Dr. Spears-Rico is in the middle of her fellowship year completing ethnographic work in Mexico, we have kept in touch. I am grateful for her support and advocacy, even from afar.
What research project did you work on?
Dr. Spears-Rico is in the process of writing her first book, Mestizx Melancholia and the Legacy of Conquest in Michoacan, which engages race, feminist, and performance theory to analyze how the dynamics of cultural appropriation affect and inform identities of mestizaje and indigeneity in Mexico. My responsibilities included supplementary investigation to aid in the book’s research, including searching for library resources, organizing fieldwork interviews, creating or correcting transcriptions, and a final literature review that analyzed  both the interviews and scholarly sources.
How did your research inform your major decision or career aspirations?
While my research project did not change my history and Spanish & Portuguese double major, it has informed the way that I study history. Learning about the long history of cultural appropriation and the deep roots that colonization holds in Mexico, I have further de-colonized the lens through which I view history.
Studying abroad in Portugal, one of the world’s largest former colonial powers, I was grateful for my research with Dr. Spears-Rico that allowed me to critically view Portugal’s history. I am excited to continue translating this work and historical framework to other colonial contexts.
How did the first year research program challenge you as an undergrad?
The DFRACS program and Dr. Spears-Rico’s guidance called for me to read academic sources, challenged my inherent biases while studying history, and held my academic writing to the highest standards.  
What would you tell a student who is deciding whether or not to do this program?
There should be no question about whether or not to do the Dean’s First Year [and Creative Scholar] Program. The opportunity to work with an accredited professor, challenge yourself with high-level research, and receive scholarship funding does not come around everyday. The amount of work you put into the DFRACS program will pay off in the networking, research, and academic opportunities you will gain throughout the program. 
Did this opportunity further your desire to do research in the future?
Yes. As an undergraduate student, the thought of doing proper research can seem daunting and uncertain. After getting a taste of what research at the U of M looks like, with the mentorship of an experienced professor, I am eager to take on more research opportunities in the future.

Portrait of Mia Benson

Mia Benson

Mia Benson, an English major, was able venture into archival work with Dr. Jessica Lopez Lyman in the CLS department. Not only did she get hands-on experience and learn about Latina artists in the Twin Cities, Mia also gained a mentor for her undergraduate career. Even though her time in DFRACS has come to a close, Mia continues to be involved in research with Dr. Lopez Lyman and expand her knowledge across English and CLS departments. 

What was it like to work so closely with a CLA professor? 

Throughout my participation in the DFRACS program, I worked with Dr. Jessica Lopez Lyman, an assistant professor in the Chicano and Latino Studies department. My experience working so closely with her was incredible. Through my work with Dr. Lopez Lyman, I learned so much about the research process, specifically as it relates to archival work. She was always accessible and happy to answer all of my questions or help me work through any challenges I encountered. 

Even beyond the research aspects of our work, though, Dr. Lopez Lyman was an amazing mentor. She made a point of going the extra mile, so I knew that she cared about my success, whether that meant asking about my classes, offering to connect me with people regarding future opportunities, or reminding me to prioritize my academic obligations over our research work. 

My experience in the DFRACS program was so successful that I continued to work for her beyond the conclusion of the program. I currently work as Dr. Lopez Lyman’s lead research assistant. The more I work for Dr. Lopez Lyman the more I learn and the gladder I am to have her as a guide throughout my undergraduate experience. DFRACS allowed me to not only gain technical, employable skills but has also provided me with what I hope will be a long-term connection with an academic professional who I really look up to. 

What research project did you work on? 

The research project on which I worked involved creating and maintaining an archive for Latina artists in the Twin Cities. Dr. Lopez Lyman was simultaneously working on a book project, so some of my research related to that as well. I spent a lot of time creating digital copies of original artist materials, documenting and categorizing those digital copies, and adding them to an online archive. I also conducted literature review searches on various topics and did some basic research work for more immediate tasks, concerning everything from Indigenous tribal leaders to Minneapolis’ public budget for arts. 

How did your research inform your major decision or career aspirations? 

I’m an English major, which I had already decided on before I began the DFRACS program. However, my participation in the DFRACS program definitely affirmed this choice. This was more as a result of working with Dr. Lopez Lyman than the research itself. Dr. Lopez Lyman actually studied English as well, which was encouraging for me because it really helped me realize the array of different career paths to which degree in English can lead. 

As far as my career aspirations, the DFRACS program has definitely made me more interested in going to graduate school and continuing to engage in research work that way. 

What would you tell a student who is deciding whether or not to do this program? 

I would definitely say to do it! This program is not necessarily easy, and it presented me with challenges at times—mostly related to time management as it can be difficult to balance schoolwork and research. That being said, it’s absolutely worth your effort. The research itself, at least in my case, was interesting and rewarding. 

More importantly, though, DFRACS presents students with the invaluable opportunity of working alongside a professor. Dr. Lopez Lyman has been such an amazing resource for me, and I’m so thankful to have had her as a guiding influence throughout my undergraduate career. 

Did this opportunity further your desire to do research in the future? 

My experience in DFRACS definitely furthered my desire to do research in the future. I initially didn’t think I would be very engaged with Dr. Lopez Lyman’s research area because Chicano and Latino studies isn’t my field of interest. I ultimately did find the research to be really interesting, and it stands to reason that I would only be more interested in research relating to my own field of study. I would love to develop a research project one day based on a topic of my own conception. 

What is your favorite memory from your research? 

My favorite memory from my research was having dinner with Dr. Lopez Lyman after the semester ended to celebrate our hard work! Other than that, I have a lot of memories of little moments of gratification wherein I felt rewarded for my hard work, and I really value those memories. 

Karen Mary Dalavos

Karen Mary Davalos, CLS department chair and professor, had the chance to mentor young researchers aiding in her own initiative to make Mexican American art widely accessible. Not only were her students learning technical skills, such as developing a database, they were also learning transferable problem-solving skills they will carry with them for the rest of their lives. Davalos notes how CLS is able to harbor great DFRACS opportunities, and adds that CLS “prioritizes teaching and learning for and with community, and students are part of this community.”  

What research did your DFRACS student help you with?  
My DFRACS students participated in the digital humanities initiative that I call Rhizomes of Mexican American Art since 1848, a forthcoming online portal that will harvest collections from libraries, archives, and museums across the nation. The students worked on the database I am developing of my own research materials so that we can test how we design Rhizomes, how we describe the works of art to make them more accessible, and how we structure the portal.
DFRACS students also conducted research about one collection I hope that Rhizomes will eventually share online. It is the Antonio Coronel Collection, the material culture and papers of the first Mexican mayor of Los Angeles under US-flag. He and his wife, Mariana Williamson de Coronel, amassed art and she created art, which makes her one of the first Chicana artists of the 19th century. The students helped me learn about the Coronels.

What is the value of this kind of undergraduate research?

With the students, we are learning how to make Mexican American art, broadly defined, visible to the public. During the COVID-19 pandemic, it became even more apparent why Rhizomes is essential. The libraries closed and students could not get access to exhibition catalogues with images of art, and with museums closed they could not visit places near them with Chicana/o/x art. More critically, of those institutions that steward collections of Mexican American art, their collections are not yet available online, and thus, students cannot explore this topic.
The Rhizomes initiative will completely change how scholars and students conduct research, ask questions, and conceptualize the field of American art history.

How does undergraduate research enhance the academic experience for students?

The students learned to conduct research using multiple and varied resources. This skill is invaluable for problem solving and resolving challenges in a range of settings. I cannot overstate the value of problem solving—this is a life skill.

What is your favorite part of working with an undergraduate student on research?

I love watching students discover an answer or resolve a problem. Not every task I assign can be completed because the field is emerging, and as I note, the information is not online. Historic inequalities make research on Mexican American art very difficult, but it is wonderful to watch them locate information that took a lot of research.

What about CLS makes it a great department for undergraduate researchers? What would you say to potential students considering the opportunity?

One of the main reasons CLS is a fantastic place for students is how the mentor-teacher-researcher model is baked into the design and origins of Chicana/o/x studies. As a field, CLS prioritizes teaching and learning for and with the community, and students are part of this community. We prioritize the transformative value of mentorship. Students are fully integrated into research projects.

This story was written by an undergraduate student in Backpack. Meet the team.