Sydni Dunn

Staff Reporter at The Chronicle of Higher Education

Names to Know: Meet 8 Graduate Students Anointed as Future Leaders

What makes a graduate student stand out? It’s hard to say, but at least we know some scholars who can help answer the question: the eight Ph.D. candidates receiving this year’s K. Patricia Cross Future Leaders Award.

The award, given annually by The Association of American Colleges and Universities, recognizes those who show exemplary promise as future leaders of higher education. The winners, who will be honored this week at the association’s annual conference in Washington, D.C., were chosen from a pool of 225 nominations from 125 institutions across a wide range of academic disciplines.

We caught up with the recipients and asked them: What advice would you give to younger graduate who are contemplating a career in academia?

Elena K. Abbott
Georgetown University | History

Who she is:
Abbott, 28, studies the history of slavery, antislavery movements, and emancipation in the Atlantic world. She also works with undergraduate students as a teaching assistant for various history courses. After her dissertation, she hopes to teach and research as a university professor.

What she’s known for:
Abbott is recognized for developing interactive course websites to enrich the history department’s newest courses. She earned the history department’s Dorothy Brown Teaching Award for her work in the classroom.

When she’s not in the classroom:
You can find Abbott outdoors. “I am an avid hiker and camper,” she says. “Whenever possible, I love to escape the city to do my work beneath the trees.”

Her advice to younger graduate students:
“Talk to current graduate students and professors to learn about the process of turning a subject you are passionate about into a viable career. These conversations are enormously helpful and can help build important support networks that last all the way through grad school.”

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Sarah J. Hatteberg
Indiana University at Bloomington | Sociology

Who she is:
Hatteberg, 29, studies the mental health and well-being of student-athletes. Her dissertation examines stress, coping, and social support among NCAA Division I collegiate athletes; she hopes to determine which aspects of the student-athlete role are most stressful, and to identify how these strains are most effectively reduced.

“I hope to find a position at a teaching-oriented university where I can be directly involved in the intellectual and professional development of undergraduate students,” she says.

What she’s known for:
As an associate instructor, Hatteberg was selected to serve her department as a Preparing Future Faculty Fellow, a role in which she was responsible for planning and organizing a conference for all graduate students on the opportunities available to them as future faculty members.She also facilitated a seminar for first-time instructors.

When she’s not in the classroom:
She’s a jet-setter. “Experiencing different cultures, being exposed to new languages, customs, and perspectives, and trying new foods are among my favorite things,” she says. “In 2012, I had the opportunity to teach abroad at the University of Mannheim in Mannheim, Germany. Having lived in Germany as a child, I was delighted to have the opportunity to brush up on my German skills, while also expanding my teaching experience to an international context.”

Her advice to younger graduate students:
“Find good mentors. I have been fortunate to have had excellent mentors who have provided me with invaluable advice, support, and inspiration throughout my undergraduate and graduate career. In my experience, the best instructors are always willing to help because they, quite simply, love to teach. Don’t feel ashamed or scared when it comes to asking for help because even the most experienced instructors have met and overcome similar challenges at some point their careers.”

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Jennifer King Chen
University of California at Berkeley | Education in Math, Science, and Technology

Who she is:
Chen, 36, is using her dissertation to examine the effects of science instruction designed to help students make decisions based on self-assessment and reflection.

“After completing my Ph.D., I hope to find a tenure-track faculty position in science education at a research university,” she says. “I think that an academic position will allow me to continue with what I most enjoy doing-—teaching classes, mentoring and working with students, and designing and researching the effectiveness of science inquiry instructional materials.”

What she’s known for:
Chen is a recipient of the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship and the Community for Advancing Discovery Research in Education Fellowship. She is also lauded for her K-12 classroom work: She has organized a family astronomy night and designed after-school and classroom instruction materials for sixth, seventh, and eighth-graders.

When she’s not in the classroom:
She'll be in the kitchen, on the dancefloor, or perfecting her Scrabble game. “I never go on a vacation without packing my travel Scrabble board,” she says.

Her advice to younger graduate students:
“Talk to faculty members about their career paths and choices. This allows me to gather more information to see if I can envision myself thriving as an academic. One of the most interesting pieces of advice that someone once told me was to keep in mind that choosing an academic career is so much more than making a decision about your professional life—it's also making a lifestyle choice, as maintaining a healthy work-life balance as an academic is a constant and ongoing challenge.”

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Amy Lueck
University of Louisville | English

Who she is:
Lueck, 30, is completing a dissertation on Louisville's first free public high schools. In addition to her dissertation research, she is passionate about educational reform, with a focus on graduate education and mentorship.

“I really enjoy both the research and teaching aspects of the job,” she says, “and actually really like service and administrative work as well, if you can believe it, so I would be thrilled to pursue that work as a career long term.”

What she’s known for:
Lueck has designed a range of undergraduate courses and graduate workshops, served as a consultant at the writing center, volunteered at a summer program for at-risk youth and taught fourth grade to under-privileged students in Memphis. She is also active in the university’s ongoing strategic-planning efforts.

When she’s not in the classroom:
You’ll find her watching television shows on Hulu, playing board games with friends, and traveling, when possible. “I’ve also gotten into cross-stitching and crocheting recently, to my mom’s great delight,” she says.

Her advice to younger graduate students:
“Go into the endeavor with your eyes wide open, with realistic expectations. Graduate school and academic work are deeply rewarding and important, but we can't assume they will result in an academic career these days. I think students know this rationally … but we are all still hopeful that we'll be the exception. We need to be having this conversation about alternative careers a lot sooner and a lot more frequently with the students who are currently being affected.”

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Yedalis Ruiz Santana
University of Massachusetts at Amherst | Higher Education

Who she is:
Santana’s doctoral research will examine the manifestation of “community cultural wealth” among first-generation, inner-city Latina students with aspirations to pursue a bachelor’s degree.

After earning her doctorate, she plans to teach at a university or college and collaborate in academic and community partnerships. “My professional aim,” she says, “is to work toward progress and challenge systems that function on oppression or exclusion.”

What she’s known for:
A first-generation college student, Santana is passionate about eliminating education disparities in higher education. She teaches several undergraduate and graduate courses dedicated to the issue.”

When she’s not in the classroom:
In honor of her father, a Puerto Rican musician, she takes pleasure in singing and in music in general, she says. She also enjoys creative projects, photography, and reading. But she adds: “One of my simplest joys in life comes from spending time with Chloe, my dog.”

Her advice to younger graduate students:
“I would encourage a student interested in pursuing a career in academia to seek out opportunities and mentors and to be deliberate in her process. I would advise her to take risks, challenge the imposter syndrome, and trust her voice and herself.”

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Michael VanElzakker
Tufts University | Psychology/Neuroscience

Who he is:
VanElzakker, 40, is experimental clinical psychologist who is most interested in why people with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder have trouble concentrating. After he completes his Ph.D., he hopes to visit unindustrialized areas of the world that have been affected by natural disasters or political violence.

“It's really empowering for traumatized people to understand that their responses are probably normal and expected, and for them to gain insight into the brain's capacity for resilience, he says. “I'd like to build a career that facilitates my ability to teach non-experts about how the brain responds to trauma.”

What he’s known for:
“After my bachelor's, I worked at a non-profit shelter for homeless teenagers for several years before going back into brain research and earning a master's,” he says. “I managed a rat neuroendocrinology lab for several years and then I went back to school to change my research focus to the neuroscience of human PTSD. All of those experiences were related to psychological trauma in different ways, and all have informed my approach.”

When he’s not in the classroom:
He is traveling, he says. “I like to go places that aren't swarmed with Western tourists: Sri Lanka, Haiti, New Zealand, Mongolia, Vietnam, China, etc.”

His advice to younger graduate students:
“Don't go into [graduate school] unless you are endlessly fascinated by the topic. You should be working on a topic that you would choose to read about in your spare time, because you will be reading about it in your spare time.”

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Omar Villanueva
Emory University | Chemistry

Who he is:
Villanueva, 27, is focusing on the development of new small-molecule catalysts that incorporate earth-abundant metal ions to promote chemical transformations. His research aims to grapple with issues of sustainability and energy conservation. “Once I leave Emory, I plan to continue my commitment to the advancement of science, scientific research and science education,” he says. “I am incredibly invested in promoting science to underrepresented minority groups.”

What he’s known for:
Throughout his graduate career, Villanueva has devoted his time to mentoring students and promoting science to women and underrepresented ethnic groups.

When he’s not in the classroom:
He’s happiest when spending time with his family, he says.

His advice to younger graduate students:
"If you have a desire to be a lifelong learner, you should pursue a career in academia. No matter where you come from."

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Cathery Yeh
University of California at Irvine | Education

Who she is:
Yeh, 36, examines teaching and learning, teacher education, and culturally responsive instruction. After graduate school, she says, “I hope to continue my work in higher education, and with local K-12 schools, to support student achievement, retention, and persistence in the STEM field.”

What she’s known for:
Her research and teaching builds on 10 years of experience working with and learning from culturally rich and ethnically diverse students in Los Angeles. As an elementary-school teacher, she visited 300 student homes and integrated students’ lived experiences, knowledge, and culture into the classroom.

When she’s not in the classroom:
She’s not too far from it, she says. “I’m usually presenting with fellow teacher colleagues at local and national math conferences, or can be found in urban schools, collaboratively working with teachers and students to further our understanding of student thinking and the types of instructions that best supports student advancement.”

When she finds free time, she spends it with her husband and their two daughters, Emy and Eliannah. “Living in sunny California,” she says, “we can be found building sand castles and chasing the waves at the beach.”

Her advice to younger graduate students:
“There is still a prevailing discourse that it is best to wait until completing the Ph.D. or wait until after tenure to have children. I would like to argue that this separates graduate school and family life into mutually exclusive pursuits, when they can both be experienced in most cases. It is important for us to make parenting visible for both students and faculty, as well as for both men and women, if we hope for academia to become a more child-friendly environment.”

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  • Actually I was not particularly impressed by any of them. All seem to be double-plus-good-good thinkers to me. Far too goody goody.

    Raymond Ritchie