Two students will use research fellowships to advance inclusiveness

Featured photoChristine Wyatt, left, and Cheyenne Johnson are recipients of Undergraduate Research Fellowships for Inclusive Excellence. (Photo by Deaudrea Rich, Inclusive Excellence)

Two Virginia Commonwealth University undergraduates, Cheyenne Johnson and Christine Wyatt, are recipients of Undergraduate Research Fellowships for Inclusive Excellence for 2017.

Each fellow receives a $1,500 award, while their faculty mentors receive a $500 award. Both Johnson and Wyatt will present their work at the Spring 2018 Poster Day during the Undergraduate Research Symposium. This is the third year that the Division for Inclusive Excellence has sponsored an award.

The undergraduate research fellowships are awarded to faculty-mentored research projects focused on diversity, through the lens of gender, race and ethnicity, religion, socioeconomic status, disabilities and/or international issues.

“There are any number of ways in which we are fortunate as a learning community at VCU, and one of them is the diversity of our student body,” said Herb Hill, director of undergraduate research opportunities. “What is most interesting to me are the ways in which that diversity manifests itself in our students’ research interests.

“The fellowships for Inclusive Excellence were essentially a response to our students’ commitment to learning more about difference through a variety of lenses. Our students and faculty are invested in contributing to new knowledge in these areas. The advancement of knowledge is at the heart of Cheyenne’s and Christine’s respective projects, but what makes their work so representative of the student body at VCU is the impetus for personal and societal change towards a more inclusive reality.”

Examining inequality and mental health care

For Johnson, a rising junior majoring in psychology and minoring in statistics in the College of Humanities and Sciences, that means using existing data to explore how inequality can affect access to mental health care.

Her proposal, “The Role of Inequality on Health Care Seeking,” was inspired by taking the course, “Sex and Sexuality in the U.S.” last fall. The course linked contemporary issues about sexual identity, reproductive rights and sexual violence to “historical legacies of power and control.”

“I took a class with my mentor [Bethany Coston, Ph.D.] … and it focused on different marginalized groups,” Johnson said. “I realized that they need more mental health care and they get it less. It’s important to me that people who need care, get it.”

According to Johnson’s developing research, previous studies related to mental health care avoidance don’t examine the role of inequality for those who may fall into several minority identity statuses. When you consider the fact that mental health issues are often associated with other chronic medical diseases, this becomes an especially serious issue when people do not receive the care they need.

By analyzing data from the National Health Interview Survey, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Johnson will investigate the link between variables such as demographics, mental health conditions and health insurance coverage for marginalized populations — including people of color, LGBTQ+ individuals and those affected by poverty.

Johnson hopes to not only use her research as material for her graduate application, but also to disseminate her findings widely in a national psychology journal or at a conference. She hopes her research can build on previous smaller studies and shape our understanding of diversity and difference within health and health care.

The Yorktown, Virginia, native has worked as a research assistant in labs for Suzanne Mazzeo, Ph.D., and Terri Sullivan, Ph.D., in the VCU Department of Psychology. Even before enrolling at VCU, Johnson knew that graduate school would be her next step after graduation. She hopes to enroll directly in a clinical psychology doctoral program.

Deconstructing identity through dance

For Wyatt, a rising senior and dance and choreography major in the School of the Arts, the fellowship comes at the perfect time as she reconciles her current discontent with her creative work and her goals for the future.

The Baltimore native, who was also the recent recipient of an Undergraduate Student Research Grant from the School of the Arts for “Journeys,” an interdisciplinary dance concert, describes frustration as being the catalyst for her project, “Depths of Identity: Decolonizing through Dance.”

“Once I was honest with myself about not being happy with what I was creating, it sparked this [line of questioning],” Wyatt said. “‘Well, what do I like?’ ‘What am I interested in?’ ‘Why am I even in this position in the first place?’ ‘What systems are in place that influence me to create work that isn’t really me?’ It sparked a whole lineage of research.”

Wyatt, who is also passionate about community building and engagement, was also inspired by the work of internationally renowned chorographer Liz Lerman, who visited campus last year. There, she was exposed further to the diversity of the dance community, working with a diverse set of seasoned professionals, and even children, for the work, “Still Crossing.”

“Working in a multigenerational space redefined what it means to be a dancer. I love the idea of dance being for everyone, which is interesting because not everyone in the dance world believes that,” Wyatt said. “It does the dance community, and everyone, a disservice when we limit what it means to dance.”

Wyatt’s fellowship will allow her to attend the Summer Leadership Institute, an annual 10-day intensive workshop sponsored by Urban Bush Women at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. The program unites a variety of artists and community organizers around the topic: “You, Me, We,” addressing internalized racial oppression in the arts community. Wyatt will use what she’s learned from the SLI to develop her senior project.

“I’m super excited,” she said. “This 10-day workshop is going to be … a vehicle for activism and talking about things that are difficult.”

Wyatt is no stranger to the difficult, and uses art to celebrate and investigate those fraught spaces. In addition to her recent projects, “Journeys” and “Decolonizing Dance,” Wyatt co-produced a concert entitled “Only in America” in Baltimore last winter, where she worked with other artists to “examine the tapestry of black life in America.” Wyatt is also the choreographer for #donttouchmyhairRVA, one of the recipients of Inclusive Excellence’s inaugural Student Social Justice Fund.

After graduating from VCU, Wyatt hopes to be doing a “more amplified version” of her current work which includes dance, choreography, community engagement, activism and research. For her, “decolonizing” is not only about finding her way through art, but also about giving back.

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