Sally Casanova Scholars Program Gives Aspiring Ph.D. Students Added Boost

Seven SDSU students were chosen for the CSU pre-doctoral award, allowing them to pursue opportunities to expand research and realize their dreams.

Tuesday, December 7, 2021
Sally Casanova scholarship recipient Alma Rocha collected water samples from the contaminated Tijuana River.
Sally Casanova scholarship recipient Alma Rocha collected water samples from the contaminated Tijuana River.

Seven San Diego State University students in fields that include environmental engineering, women’s studies and criminal justice have been named Sally Casanova Scholars for the 2021-22 academic year.

It’s all part of a longstanding initiative by California State University’s Pre-Doctoral Program to inspire and empower juniors, seniors and master’s students from economically and educationally disadvantaged groups to pursue Ph.D. programs. In all, 76 CSU students received the Sally Casanova Scholarship, named for the CSU administrator who launched the program in 1989.

“There is a focus on getting better representation in academia and this is a critical piece of the puzzle to help encourage and promote that,” said Tracy Love, dean of graduate studies at SDSU. “It’s an acknowledgement of the need to support diversity in all its forms in graduate programs, to nurture future doctoral students' success and to foster future doctoral mentors.

“To be chosen and get this award gives students an added boost.”

Each Sally Casanova Scholar receives $3,000, allowing them to travel to visit Ph.D. programs, attend conferences, join professional organizations and further their own research. Scholars also have the opportunity to be mentored by a faculty member at their university.

SDSU has produced 231 Sally Casanova Scholars over the past 32 years. Here are this year’s recipients:

Nancy Bahena
Women’s studies graduate student Nancy Bahena is working on a storytelling film project seeking to document, from a feminist perspective, low-income Latinas who participated in the informal economy (unregulated labor) in San Diego during the COVID-19 pandemic. The project aims to show the dynamics of the work that shapes and influences them, their families and their communities.

“Being a recipient of this scholarship has made me feel overjoyed, supported and affirmed in pursuing a doctoral degree,” Bahena said. “I have not met many working-class, queer, Latinas/Chicanas, first-generation college transfer students like me with an opportunity like this.”

Added Irene Lara, associate professor of women’s studies: “The Sally Casanova Scholarship honors Nancy's intelligence as a critical and creative thinker, alongside her determination to deepen her skills as a scholar-activist committed to creating knowledge with and accessible to local low-income communities.”

Kayla Daniels            
A graduate student in history, Kayla Daniels conducts research on the experiences of Black Americans in the American West. She is particularly focused on the rise of all-Black towns and their institutions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

“I hope to use this research as a part of a larger comparative research project contrasting the formation of Black communities in Canada and the United States,” Daniels said. “Receiving the Sally Casanova Pre-Doctoral Scholarship has been a wonderful opportunity to hone my research skills and open new possibilities.”

Nicolas Gutierrez III
Nicolas Gutierrez III’s work with community organizations and mutual aid groups opened his eyes to the injustices faced by people experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles. Now, as a criminal justice and criminology graduate student, he studies the criminalization of poverty and discriminatory policing of the homeless population.

“This research is important because it comes at a time when government officials in Los Angeles are ditching service-oriented approaches to homelessness in favor of criminalizing its most vulnerable residents,” said Gutierrez. “While my work focuses on Los Angeles, the city represents a microcosm of our nation’s homelessness crisis and inhumane responses. My goal is to pursue a Ph.D. and continue conducting community-based research with the hopes of informing effective policy to address root causes of homelessness.”

Mary Hernandez
A graduate student in speech-language pathology, Mary Hernandez studies language and cognitive processes in traumatic brain injuries, aging processes and neurological advantages in bilingual speakers.

“Bilingual speakers process language differently and faster,” she said. “This cognitive advantage helps in the aging process and it has shown to delay the onset of dementia symptoms by about four years.”

Hernandez said she’s excited for the opportunity to explore Ph.D. programs and research options across the CSU. She already used a portion of the stipend to attend the American Speech, Language and Hearing Association (ASHA) convention in Washington, D.C., in November.

Caitlyn Keeve
Psychology graduate student Caitlyn Keeve studies the overlap between social psychology and education. She is particularly interested in eliminating barriers to underrepresented students finishing college.

Keeve — who was inspired to apply by a previous Sally Casanova Scholar in her research lab — said she plans to take advantage of the program’s summer research opportunities to gain expertise with additional methods of data collection. She leveraged her Sally Casanova award over the summer to present a poster on her research at the American Psychological Association national conference.

“I would encourage anyone who is even thinking about doctoral study to just take the time to look into this program,” Keeve said. “Anyone who wants to practice research skills and get the support they deserve should apply.”

Jose Olvera
Jose Olvera grew up in San Marcos, California, in a low-income community beset by educational and health inequities. Now a graduate student in SDSU’s school counseling program, that background serves as his inspiration. Olvera pursues research on systemic educational inequities in low-income communities and communities of color.

“My philosophy is that every student in the K-12 system should have access to a good quality education, regardless of their demographics, what community they live in, how much their parents make or what zip code they live in,” Olvera said.

Prior to becoming a Sally Casanova Scholar, Olvera assumed a doctorate was out of his reach. Now he’s using the award to visit programs at Harvard University and Johns Hopkins University among others.

Alma Rocha
Civil engineering-environmental engineering graduate student Alma Rocha is a Texas native, but her favorite city is San Diego. One big reason? The Tijuana River is close by for her research.

“It comes in handy with my background being Hispanic and knowing Spanish,” she said. “It’s really interesting and sometimes a bit sad, because at the end of the day, there are human pathogens in the river and it’s impacting underprivileged areas of San Diego County.”

Rocha’s research centers on the surveillance of SARS-CoV-2 — the virus that causes COVID-19 — in wastewater and the detection of pathogens in contaminated surface waters such as the Tijuana River. The Sally Casanova scholarship will allow her to visit campuses prior to committing to a Ph.D. program.  

Become a Sally Casanova Scholar
Applications are open for the 2022-23 Sally Casanova Pre-Doctoral Program, with a deadline of noon Feb. 11. Graduate Studies will be hosting three Zoom workshops for interested students in December and January. Learn more about the program and workshops.

(Peggy Pico, Leslie L.J. Reilly, Lizbeth Price, Melinda Sevilla and Sarah White contributed to this article.)  

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