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Home » Discover Rackham » Student Spotlight: Charity Hoffman

Charity never imagined that she would end up in graduate school at the University of Michigan. Although she was born in western Michigan, she grew up in Japan and New York City; Michigan was simply the place she would come back to once a year to visit grandparents and cousins. As a child in Queens, she would compare her family's cramped brownstone and postage-stamp backyard to the big homes and sprawling lawns of Michigan and longed to move back here. By the time she was in college, though, she appreciated the diversity and cultural richness that growing up in New York allowed her to experience. “I lived in one of the most ethnically diverse zip codes in the world,” she says. “There were kids from about fifty different countries in my elementary school. When I told a classmate I was from Michigan, she asked, 'Oh, is that near Poland?'”

After Charity graduated from the City University of New York's Macaulay Honors College, her parents and younger siblings ended up relocating to Michigan. But it wasn't until she discovered the joint doctoral program in Social Work and Sociology that Charity began to seriously consider moving back, too. “At the time,” she recalls, “I was debating between applying to M.S.W. programs and Ph.D. programs, and this seemed liked the perfect fit.”

Today, Charity researches the transition to first-time motherhood, a project born from her life experiences and her interests in academia. “After undergrad, I took an eight month cross-country road trip, during which I interviewed 80 strangers about marriage. I listened to stories of how women struggled to balance work and family, and wondered how anyone does it successfully. My own mother and grandmother were stay-at-home moms who had big families and never worked outside of the home after they got married; I just kind of assumed my path would be similar. I never expected I would be getting a Ph.D.”

Those experiences combine with vivid memories from her social work career before grad school: “I was working at homeless shelter with teen moms and remember an issue with one mom whose parenting behavior left me alarmed. My supervisor and I were considering whether to report her to child protective services, but as a part of that review, we received thoughtful feedback from a colleague. He said that this woman may not fit our idea of a good mother, but she was doing the best she could under extraordinarily tough circumstances. That led to questions about what is a good mom, and how our social circumstances shape our choices.”

For her dissertation research, Charity has completed over fifty interviews with first-time moms, covering issues like pregnancy, birth, social support, parental leave policies, and the challenges new mothers face when returning to work. “The most interesting part is seeing how women’s access to parental leave is intertwined with class; while middle-class women often (but not often enough!) benefit from paid time off and unofficial benefits like flexible or part-time hours as they transition back to work, working class and poor women are often ebbed out of the workforce. The lack of formal, national parental leave policy in the United States means that already vulnerable women are further disadvantaged when they have children.”

With a spectrum of experiences in mind, Charity pursues this work for meaningful reasons. She remembers the story of one new mother, commuting from Ann Arbor to her job in Detroit. She says, “When she returned to work after three months off, she was literally pumping breastmilk while driving to work, and then pumping again in a windowless supply closet at work. I’m doing this research so her daughter won’t have to do that.”

On being a grad student at Michigan, Charity says, “I love it. This place just gets better and better. I got my M.S.W. here while pursuing my Ph.D., and in the beginning, that was really hard. I get terrible migraines, and some days it was all I could do to get out of bed. Colleagues kept reminding me that this is a marathon not a sprint; I had to pace myself in order to stay in it for the long haul. But I am grateful for the outstanding health care here — I have a team of wonderful care providers who have helped carry me through — and a Rackham Emergency Grant helped cover my outstanding medical costs.”

“If I could be a grad student forever, I would. I think it’s amazing that I get paid to read and write and talk to people. A friend was just telling me the other day, I’m the only person he knows who doesn’t complain about their work. My cup overflows. I’m fortunate to have my family living nearby. It is a luxury that my funding package has allowed me to spend summers in Haiti, and time during the year volunteering with single moms, working in a community garden, and investing in an intentional community I helped start. My work in other areas helps inform my scholarship. ”

Outside of the halls of academia, Charity has led intergroup dialogues with local high school students around race and social justice issues, both in Ann Arbor public schools and in Petionville, Haiti. It took a while to get her there: “It was a long, painful learning process, uncovering my resistance and understanding my privilege. I spent a lot of time being defensive, but someone got through to me, and it was a huge healing point for me to have relationships with African American friends in much deeper and more meaningful ways.”

Now, Charity is in the process of applying for an Arts of Citizenship grant to continue to do intergroup dialogue work in the community. She was an Engaged Pedagogy Fellow last year and also participated in the Arts of Citizenship Institute for Social Change through Rackham. She says, “Throughout my time here, I've been seeking out opportunities to enhance my understanding and practice of public scholarship. That is– how can I make sure that what I learn in the classroom and in my research has real world applications? That, for me, was the draw of the joint Social Work/Sociology program, because it offered both a strong academic foundation and a push to think about how this matters for policy and practice.”

“I’m grateful for the mentors who’ve brought me here. I have a soft spot for my students who don’t think the academy is a place for them; I want to help them to see their own potential. I like teaching, but I like mentoring even more. My dream job would be at a small liberal arts college, where I could work closely with students and colleagues. Meanwhile, I am thoroughly enjoying my time here. I am constantly in awe of the vastness of the library, overall resources, and opportunities for funding here at Michigan.”