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Newly Funded Crossroads Scholars Research Under Way
UA faculty members Adela C. Licona and Stephen T. Russell earned a $730,000 Ford Foundation grant that is partially funding the research of five UA scholars around youth sexuality and health issues.
This concept is at the core of research headed up by the University of Arizona's Crossroads Collaborative scholars, a highly selective group whose research is funded by a Ford Foundation grant to investigate issues around youth sexuality, health and rights.
One such scholar is Jenna Vinson, a UA graduate student of rhetoric, composition and the teaching of English who is centering her work on the framing of teen parenting as a "social problem."
Vinson, whose dissertation is "Teen Mothers as Rhetors and Rhetoric: An Analysis of Embodied Exigence and Constrained Agency in Rhetorical Situations Involving Mothers," has been investigating how people talk about teen mothers and interpret their experiences.
She also is studying how such perceptions shape beliefs around issues related to youth, sexuality, health and legal and civil rights.
"If we talk about young mothers as deviant, it is through that language that both adults and teen mothers interpret the rights that teen mothers have," Vinson said. "That kind of attitude then shapes what they can achieve as mothers. The rhetoric produced constrains them."
The $730,000 Ford Foundation grant that is supporting Vinson, other scholars and initiatives was awarded to Stephen T. Russell, the University of Arizona's Fitch Nesbitt Endowed Chair, and Adela C. Licona, a UA assistant professor of rhetoric and a documentary filmmaker who also serves as Vinson’s dissertation chair.
All told, the grant also is funding a newly created seminar, community-based research and engagement and also the work of four other scholars. The other scholars are:
- Samantha L. Grace, a graduate student in the School of Anthropology, is working on two projects. Mostly concerned with age, citizenship, morality, motherhood, kinship and sex education, Grace is producing a thesis, "Living Lessons of Age and Citizenship," and a conference paper on sexual education.
- Londie Martin, a graduate student of rhetoric, composition and the teaching of English, who is primarily interested in feminist action research and also youth rights and new media. Martin is working with Licona to develop a collaboration with young women centered on literary activism.
- Kali S. Van Campen, a graduate student in the family studies and human development division within the UA John & Doris Norton School of Family and Consumer Sciences. Van Campen's dissertation is focusing on the ways that family and cultural influences shape views about sexuality among young Hispanic women. Russell serves as her dissertation chair.
- Ryan Watson, a graduate student in family and consumer sciences, is mostly concerned with sexualities, identity and family relations within the context of adolescent development. Russell is his dissertation chair.
Vinson, who was 17 when she had her first child, said a mere scan of nationwide news reports on teen mothers and parenting teens provides ample proof that the group is negatively marked "as abnormal."
Also, the issue of teen parenting has garnered more widespread media attention with films and television shows such as "Juno," "Glee," ABC Family's "Secret Life of American Teenager" and MTV's "Teen Mom." And for the 2010 federal budget, President Barack Obama announced billions of dollars in funding for retooled sex education programs to boost the prevention of teen pregnancy.
Anti-teen pregnancy initiatives and efforts have shaped what support, education and respect young mothers receive, said Vinson, who also is collaborating on a sexual education study with the UA's Southwest Institute for Research on Women and local schools.
So, instead of a more heavy focus on providing appropriate support to parenting teens, "all we see is the ideology that kids shouldn't have kids," she said.
The problem, she added, is that healthy images of parenting teens and even the belief that young parents can raise healthy children often are absent.
"Just because you have a baby does not mean your life is over," said Vinson, who intends for her dissertation to inform teenagers and those who work with them. "But in speaking about them, we use their bodies to prove a point about who has the right to have babies."
And that goes for other youth populations.
Watson is studying how youth respond to ways their parents perceive of them, whether positive or negative. Overall, Watson is trying to understand how the youth-parent dynamic affects youth achievement and health.
"I discovered a huge gap in the research on the topic I am looking at," said Watson, who is primarily interested in sexuality, identity, family interactions and also youth development.
Like Watson and the Crossroads scholars, a clear directive drives Vinson: To inform public discussions about these youth-related issues and to be informed by youth themselves.
"I would like to do something that is useful to the community that might result in change in perception and change in policy," Vinson said. "Part of the focus of the Crossroads Collaborative is bridging that terrible divide that exists between the academy and the community."