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Home » Discover Rackham » Student Spotlight: William Lopez

“Public health is an incredible tool to support those who are marginalized and stigmatized in our communities. It’s a tool for intervention, of course, but more importantly, it provides a systematic way to listen and support community-defined health and well-being.

Born and raised in San Antonio, Texas to a mother who immigrated from Mexico and a father born in Texas, William says, “We are pushed far too often in the academy to come to our work as ‘blank slates.’ For many of us, not only is that simply impossible to do, but it makes us worse scientists. Much of our work focuses on communities with which we identify and on behalf of whom we advocate outside of the academy. We must bring our empathy and passion into our research and let it drive our research questions, our methods, and our dissemination strategies.”

After attending Notre Dame for his undergraduate degree, William worked in a homeless services center in Houston while getting his Master’s in public health. William says he pursued this degree, “partially because I was unsure what else to do. I wanted to vaguely contribute to something ‘good.’ Public health as a discipline exposed me to concepts of health inequity, and I soon understood that this analytic lens was a powerful way to conceptualize social justice. In my work at the homeless center, I was seeing poverty, racism, and inequitable social policies affect the real day-to-day lives of individuals. This gave a lot of meaning to what I was studying.”

William and his partner came to Michigan in part so they were in greater proximity to her parents in East Lansing. Their family has grown over the course of the last few years, a two-year-old and a five-year-old running around the house, having grandma and grandpa nearby, as well as the Texan set that will Skype at the drop of a hat, has been critical to William’s accomplishments as a Ph.D. student.

William worked at the Institute for Social Research for almost four years, and later worked as a Research Assistant on the Detroit Youth Passages (DYP) project, a study that considered how youths’ life circumstances contributed to sexual vulnerability and sought to promote positive change. Through this process, William says, “I am incredibly privileged to have cut my CBPR teeth on this project. Collaborating with community-based organizations in Detroit was not only enlightening, but completely reframed how I see my academic work. I met some of the most inspirational people I know working on this project. It was probably while working with Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation that I began rethinking my own identity, reflecting on what it means to be Latino living in the U.S. I was familiar with the stories of struggle that shape Latino families and communities, but I was naively unaware that there are so many political and social pressures that continue to influence our everyday lives. I was fortunate to stumble upon a few undocumented advocates and view them publicly “coming out” about their undocumented status. I’ll never forget the first rally I went to when a young Latina took the microphone on stage and said that she was “undocumented and unafraid.” Honestly, that moment probably changed my life forever.

As he pursued his doctoral research, William continued working with undocumented communities, albeit in a different setting. He hopes to advance our understanding of undocumented immigrants by increasing the conversations we have about “mixed-status communities.” These communities, he says, “are more reflective of what actually happens on the ground, where in a single neighborhood you have people who are undocumented, with visas, or who are citizens, living, working, and playing alongside folks in all those categories and everyone in between.”

His dissertation focuses on the psychosocial health effects of immigration home raids on mixed-status Latino communities using a case study of a raid that occurred in November of 2013 in Washtenaw County. This mixed-methods study will consider data from a collaborative survey that collected data around three months before and two months after the raid, as well as interviews with members of the community in which the raid occurred.

But contributing to the scientific literature focused on immigration and health is only part of what William desires to do with the data. William wants to raise awareness: “While the experiences of those affected by immigration enforcement are certainly “data,” it’s important to remember that these are people’s lives. These are the stories of suffering and violence experienced by our families and communities. I, along with others in public health, are incredibly privileged to sit at kitchen tables, rallies, and restaurants and be told the most intimate details of our participants’ lives… While this will ultimately form the basis of many of our dissertations, to be entrusted with these narratives and allow them to sit only in a digital library is not public health work, and certainly not advocacy. As researchers and advocates, we must work to share these stories accurately and empathetically, both inside and outside of the academy.”

Of his graduate student experience, William says, “I’ve found the collaboration here to be excellent. At U-M, you have the best researchers right next door, and I’m fortunate to have worked with and be mentored by them, and perhaps even call one or two of them my friends. In my department, I’ve similarly had a positive experience. My original advisors and mentors on the DYP project, Mark Padilla and Louis Graham, I always joke with them that they ruined my life. I had a pretty good quantitative trajectory mapped out, but they introduced me to qualitative, mixed-method, and community based work. This type of work doesn’t take place during predictable hours simply in front of my laptop. But while I find it demanding, it’s also incredibly rewarding. Rackham has also been very supportive in all my research and in supporting my travels. My experience as a Rackham Merit Fellow has been great and made the rest of grad school easier. I mean, I can maybe kinda sorta take credit for some of the things I’ve accomplished, but I have had so many people in my metaphorical corner, that I feel like the Ph.D. will be as much theirs as it is mine…”

Like many parents of young children, William spends his time outside of academia playing with and caring for his kids. He says, “A lot of what I do for fun is spend my non-academic time with my children. Though I admit, the line between my academic life and my family life is really blurry, but that’s sort of on purpose. In my research, I always try and focus on and highlight the strengths and resiliencies of Latino communities, as well as other communities with which they intersect. Why would I want to keep that to myself!? My children had their faces painted to look like skeletons at a “death to deportation” rally, heard undocumented individuals “come out” publicly about their statuses, and met advocates that I really believe will change the face of immigration policy. Poor Mia probably just wants to read The Cat in the Hat, but instead I make her read books like “¡Si Se Puede!” about the janitor strike in LA. Though she seems to be getting into it now!”

“Of course, while I enjoy sharing my culture and work with them, I have to give credit to my partner, Katie.” Katie is part of the U-M family as well, having earned her M.S.W. at the School of Social Work where she is now the Assistant Director of the Office of Global Activities.

William has found multiple communities of support here at U-M: a Rackham Interdisciplinary Workshop, The Coalition for Interdisciplinary Research on Latino/a Issues (CIRLI) that he currently co-leads, and the National Center for Institutional Diversity (NCID). He says, “As a Latino in the academy, I constantly searched for faculty who looked like me, or whose life stories were similar to mine. Unfortunately, many minorities learn that such a search will be disappointing, because there are simply too few people of color in academia. But in CIRLI and at the NCID, I’ve met brilliant and fearless students and researchers of color who are my age! Sometimes I can’t believe that I get to call these people my friends! So many of them have such profound auras of confidence. When they walk into a room, I can almost hear them thinking, ‘this is my work. I belong here. I’m going to stay here. And I am going to excel ’ Being around these folks has made me feel as though my work is worthwhile, and my identity and background are not something to be forgot or hidden, but from which I can draw strength.”

But equally as important, I’ve also learned that it’s silly to look only to the academy for guidance on inspiration on navigating the academy. As Latinos, many of our parents and grandparents were immigrants who crossed the border and learned how to operate in a foreign culture in a second language. In my work, I have worked with a number of undocumented students who are attending college despite the fear of their own detainment for their immigration statuses. And nationwide, we see other activists chaining themselves in front of busses to protest unjust deportation of family members. So while I may not be able to ask these folks how to finish a dissertation, I can look to them as examples of how to face challenges and disadvantage that I can only begin to imagine.”

William can be reached via email at [email protected] or twitter at @lopez_wd.