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Home » Discover Rackham » Student Spotlight: Kennedy Turner

Kennedy Turner, Ph.D. Candidate, Sociology and Public Policy, Rackham Merit Fellowship

Kennedy first came to U-M the summer after her junior year at Howard University to spend seven weeks in the Public Policy and International Affairs (PPIA) Institute, a program designed to prepare diverse undergraduate students for graduate programs in public policy and international affairs. Years later, she reflects on that experience and her continued love for the program, “I really enjoyed that summer. I met a lot of faculty, staff, students, and felt like this was a place I could be, find people I could care about, and where I could grow.” Her experience in PPIA led her to choose Michigan for her graduate studies and to remain connected to the program which gave her so much. Kennedy still serves as a residential and an academic counselor to help connect current PPIA participants to people who can be helpful while they’re here. “PPIA is still one of my favorite times of the year. We have around 18 undergrads come in who are interested in public policy and contribute to the diversity of public policy-makers. It is so much fun! I see myself as a big sister to the students. It is a good marker from my own growth because I was once where they are now. The students are so amazing and so inspiring, so they recharge me and remind me why I do what I do.”

Now a 5th year doctoral candidate in Sociology and Public Policy, Kennedy’s research focus is trying to understand the social mobility for Black Americans, specifically how Black Americans get into and stay in middle class. She explains, “I’m interested in learning how Black Americans, specifically Black college students, see racial identity and class identity, and how that affects how they think about social mobility. I’m still developing the overall argument of my dissertation. We know that college students come from a variety of class backgrounds, and I think about how those class backgrounds affect you and how you go forward in terms of racial identity development when you get to the university setting.

By interviewing freshman and following up with them as sophomores at two universities, she’s in the midst of collecting a large data set for her dissertation. “I’m really invested in the success and stories of Black Americans in this country. Yes, there are challenges and problems we face, but there is also so much richness and variety in what we do and who we are, and there’s so much we can learn and celebrate. There’s so much complexity in the experience of a people who live in a country in which your ancestors were enslaved. This is something that drives what I do because I want to do my very small part for how we improve the lives of Black people in this country. There are so many things that this can mean. My research area is one small part of that agenda; it is one little bit that I can do.”

Most graduate students spend time teaching, and Kennedy is no exception. However, few enjoy it as much as she does. She’s served as a GSI for sociology, statistics, research methods, sociology of sports and was the instructor of record for a class on the sociology of race and ethnicity. “That class was great; the experience of creating a syllabus and thinking through assignments confirmed for me this is important work that I enjoy and have the skills for.”

Being in a dual school program affords Kennedy a different perspective on grad school. Many students are siloed in a department, but Kennedy transcends schools and disciplines that show her the different flavors across the university. Wherever she goes, she says, “At U-M, there are so many people you run into who are extraordinarily passionate about something. At the policy school, students are passionate about change making, and in sociology, students are passionate about advancing theoretical and methodological research.”

Still, challenges abound, as they do for all of us. Kennedy is self-aware enough to recognize, in her words, “The biggest challenge of grad school is what I knew it would be – myself. As I experience a problem, I have to reflect on it and determine, ‘No that’s just a Kennedy thing, that’s not the program.’ Grad school is not always easy, but it’s been what I wanted it to be. I’m pleased with the decision I made.”

She continues, “The cool thing about being a Ph.D. student is having the ability to craft your own research agenda and pursue your own passion, and in my field, be your own boss. That’s a blessing and a challenge that you work through. You continue to find ways to motivate yourself, get the things done, and have the space to be intellectually creative. You need to have that discipline with yourself. The great thing is that room to explore, and I felt so supported in that exploration here at U-M.”

As a Rackham Merit Fellow, Kennedy has been pleased with the opportunities afforded her by this program. She explains, “Graduate students at other universities don’t have that. It matters. The exploration I talked about, when you have good funding you can do that. Scholarship doesn’t suffer when you have good funding.”

As a part of the RMF programming, Kennedy attended the Summer Institute before beginning grad school and got to know a large cohort of new students from across many different schools and colleges at U-M. She echoes the comments of many other participants, “Summer Institute was the foundation of my friend group, and I branched out from there. That was a huge benefit to me.”

Upon graduation she says, “I want to pursue a faculty position. I like a lot of aspects of research prospects, but academia would be the best fit to balance my research interests and teaching. I really do enjoy teaching; it is great to get the chance to interact with students. We’ll see where life takes me from here.”

Until then, Kennedy has elevated her interest in cooking in grad school, something that’s worked out well for her friends: “I like to cook and I’ve used my time at U-M to take it more seriously. I enjoy cooking good meals for myself and my friends. I love entertaining and being around people. Ann Arbor is a wonderful place to go to school, and I’ve met a lot of great people here. There’s something unique about this population intellectually.”