Nkemka did a lot of work in youth community organizations over a number of years and through those experiences, she recognized that so many people have intentions of what they want to do with the kids they support but don’t have the research foundation to ground programs. “Community based organizations would benefit from others who can investigate processes and who care about community engagement research. I felt like I could do that, and my research exposure had me realize the connections between community work and the research I was doing.”
So she headed to graduate school. Nkemka admits, “I never would have placed myself at Michigan. It’s cold here. I didn’t think of U-M as an option, but my undergrad advisor told me to attend U-M’s psychology diversity recruitment weekend. There were people of color doing really interesting work. It was an extremely supportive environment. That weekend definitely brought me here.”
A student in the joint social work and psychology program, Nkemka says, “The marriage between the two is perfect for me. Social work is applied and social justice-y and that helps me determine how we intervene. Psychology is heavy on theory, so both fields allow me to answer questions I want to answer.”
Her goals are to develop an understanding of the ways young Black youth construct their ideologies about race and gender, how those beliefs relate to psychological well-being, and how they make sense of inequality and affect their view of social justice. Some of her recent research has examined how media usage connects to adolescents’ beliefs on race and gender.
She continues, “We see that Black youth watch a lot of TV, more TV than a lot of their peers, but there is very limited work on the impact of this media usage. Adolescents use pop culture to self-socialize in ways that resonate with their identities, and for Black adolescents, media may especially be an important source of information about their identity since far too often they are not being taught much about their history and culture in academic settings. How are they using this to cope with marginalization? For Black youth, there are so many holes in the research.”
Funding through the Program in Public Scholarship allowed her to implement a community based project to begin this research. She developed an after school program for a year where high school students examined images of Black people on TV and looked at how Black people represented in their domains. She says, “This process was so fascinating not just to speculate on how kids evaluate media, but to see them deconstruct it. Through this experience, the high school students got the chance to teach their peers, receive research training from prominent faculty members, and present their work to doctoral students. Having done that early on in grad school was a challenge because I was still trying to figure things out, but I got the chance to hear real voices and interact with young people while conducting research on them. I was able to give them experience with research, demystify what research is, and show how can use it to create social change. Teaching their peers was a way to intervene. As they engage in activism in the future, they learned that research is an important part of these things.”
Her goal is to incorporate results from this research into programming in organizations. Nkemka says, “If we know how media impacts Black youth, we can determine how we utilize that in community based programming.” As a social work intern, Nkemka piloted some of these ideas. She would pull music into her group interventions with adolescents and they responded well to it. She shares, “We could talk about things differently when I would play their favorite artists and talk about it. It was a great starting board and there is such positive utility in music. Thinking about utility of music or television and intervention is important to me.”
Graduate school is definitely a space of self-discovery and has challenged me in ways that have been beneficial.
She is interested in pursuing a tenure track position, most likely in a department that values engaged work. “I want to be in the community doing work and conduct research as well. I think that balance will be a challenge; I’m told how much work it can be to get tenure and do community engaged work. To be a community engaged scholar means you have to work twice as hard, be productive, take time to partner with communities, do the research and still teach.”
She’s used to double duty, though, as a doctoral student in a joint program. She says, “I had to take a full load of doctoral courses in Social Work and Developmental Psychology. I had to get my M.S.W. in there, too. I have two sets of prelims, and this very heavy load makes it hard to get stuff out. Having fellowship funds, provided me the space to do the community based projects and deepen my research.”
On graduate school, Nkemka shares, “Graduate school is definitely a space of self-discovery and has challenged me in ways that have been beneficial. I’ve learned a lot about collaborating, sophisticated ways research can be applied, and about so many resources and opportunities available here.” She takes advantage of those opportunities, too. As a part of the Engaged Pedagogy Initiative, she says, “I’ve learned how to teach in new ways and have been exposed to a lot of things many grad students don’t have access to. This program has given me a deeper understanding on how I can have a big impact on my community.”
She’s also the chair of the Black student psychology organization, the space where the diversity recruitment weekend that pulled her to U-M began. She says, “That organization has been so instrumental in my development, that’s who I call to get guidance, get feedback, talk about challenges. That has kept me here. It’s not easy to be a graduate student, going to new place, new space, with different work and pressures. It’s important to have a strong social network and that organization and friends have been instrumental in my being here.”