Interview by Michelle Nicholasen
From first-generation college student to assistant professor at the School of Politics and Global Studies at Arizona State University (ASU), Angie Bautista-Chavez shares her experiences navigating the world of academia and the ways in which the Graduate Student Associates (GSA) program helped prepare her for life as a profesora.
CENTERPIECE: Can you give an overview of your pathway from first-generation student to college professor?
BAUTISTA-CHAVEZ: My family is from El Refugio, San Luis Potosí, Mexico. I grew up in rural Texas, right outside of the city of Lockhart. Growing up, I saw my mother navigate many challenges in this country as an immigrant woman, and I also saw her go back to school and get her GED. She later became a manager in food service in the Austin Independent School District.
Lockhart is very important to me for many reasons. It has only one high school, and it’s a place where everyone knows each other. Students who grow up in working-class immigrant families, especially in rural areas, are often not connected to college opportunities. And when we are, we face significant financial barriers in higher education. This was the case for me. I had competitive grades but didn’t have the money to pay for college. What is so crucial in my own personal story is that I received so much support from my hometown.
I was lucky in that I crossed paths with a new assistant principal at the time, Monica Guillory, who came to Lockhart intent on working with students who were often underestimated or dismissed. It was in Saturday school detention that I met her. She asked me about my plans for college, and I didn’t have any concrete plans. Monica Guillory was also helpful because she spoke with my mother, helping us navigate difficult conversations about leaving home and moving to a different city for college. She encouraged me to apply to all scholarships I was eligible for. I fundraised money through bake sales while waiting tables at Garcia’s Mexican Restaurant. I vividly remember my little sister and my friend, Roxanne Urrutia, baking cookies for me. This is how I paid for books during my first year of college.
It was through the guidance of teachers in my high school where I learned about Rice University. Rice is a private university and had increased its commitments to supporting low-income families. It was a combination of generous financial aid packages and fundraising in my hometown that made it possible for me to attend.
CENTERPIECE: What was the focus of your graduate research at Harvard?
BAUTISTA-CHAVEZ: I studied immigration enforcement. It was through my early fieldwork in East Boston that I was inspired to do a project that examined both the domestic and international dimensions of immigrant enforcement. In 2013 and 2014, I had been volunteering with Centro Presente, an immigrant-led organization on immigrant rights. By volunteering with Cesar Boc, who was a Centro Presente community organizer, I helped to document the stories of women and children who had recently arrived in East Boston from various places in Central America. By listening to their stories, I realized that Central Americans had moved through various countries, and experienced compounded levels of harm by various governments—governments who themselves had their own historical and complex relationships. I knew that my dissertation had to move beyond the United States to understand the total effect of US immigration policies.
CENTERPIECE: What drew you to that subject?
BAUTISTA-CHAVEZ: As the daughter of immigrants, I’ve always been interested and shaped by immigration. The experiences of my family members have always been a lens through which I have understood American politics, public policy, and immigration policy. While I didn’t have the words to express this in my youth, I did know that immigration and immigration policy were more nuanced and layered than how the issue was framed and discussed in public debates.
In terms of research, when I was at Rice University as an undergraduate student, it was a transformative part of my undergraduate experience to work with professors and graduate students who treated undergraduates as capable researchers and recruited them to work as research assistants.
I was introduced to the world of research early in my undergraduate studies, largely in part because then-graduate student, and now a professor, Dr. Ngoc Phan, recruited me to work as a research assistant. As part of the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship, I was then trained and mentored by Professor Melissa Marschall. She introduced me to the world of research in political science that focused on immigration and contexts of reception. Through her training, I came to understand schools as sites of incorporation for immigrant families. And this resonated with many of my own lived experiences. So, I’ve always known that immigration policy shaped—and was shaped by—many other policy areas, but early on I didn't have the words to express the multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary connections I was making.
CENTERPIECE: What role did the GSA program play in your development as a scholar?
BAUTISTA-CHAVEZ: The GSA program is very special to me. When I applied, I felt like I had not yet found a community in political science. I began my coursework in American politics, but I knew that I wanted to understand the international and transnational dimensions of immigration policy. The GSA program provided the intellectual and social community I needed, because the other graduate student research fellows were also developing transnational or international projects. Not only did I learn from the research of others in the program, but I also learned from Erez Manela about how to facilitate community among various fields. Folks came in with different approaches, different theoretical and methodological toolboxes, and spoke with different jargon. In this program, I learned how to listen and how to engage with colleagues in meaningful ways, not only to provide feedback, but also to integrate what I was learning weekly into my own work.
In my syllabi today, I draw on the work of historians, political geographers, and anthropologists. This was inspired by conversations, presentations, and events hosted by the Weatherhead Center. In fact, a fellow GSA was the first to really challenge me on how I thought about and studied borders. This was my first introduction to examining borders through Indigenous perspectives. Another key event for me was attending a research talk by political geographer Alison Mountz, through the Weatherhead Center’s Canada Program. In my classes today, I incorporate research by Indigenous scholars and political geographers and will continue to do so.
CENTERPIECE: Can you remember a particular challenge you faced?
BAUTISTA-CHAVEZ: One challenge I faced early in the dissertation process regarded methodology. I knew the tools of regression analysis didn’t seem appropriate for the kinds of questions I was asking. For example, under what conditions does Mexico collaborate with the United States on immigration enforcement? The GSA community provided me a place to learn how other graduate students were developing rigorous qualitative or archive-based work. The projects of fellow GSAs included ethnographies and interviews, and they were drawing on materials from various types of archives. They provided inspiration for my own work, and I used my GSA funding to visit archives in both Washington, DC and Mexico City. I also then conducted interviews with both countries as well.
CENTERPIECE: How did the GSA program prepare you for the job market?
BAUTISTA-CHAVEZ: The GSA program helped prepare me in various ways. Even before I applied for jobs, I saw how other GSAs prepared for the job market. Graduate students shared offices, and I saw two of my office mates go through the job market process. I saw how emotional and uncertain the process was. And I also realized how crucial it was to have a team of support, which included advisors but also peers. As part of the GSA workshops, I also got to see practice job talks, and I had the opportunity to present my own talk. It’s a scary and uncertain process, but I felt like I wasn’t alone. And I felt like I was part of a group that wanted each other to do well and be well.
CENTERPIECE: What advice do you have for aspiring graduate students?
BAUTISTA-CHAVEZ: It is so important to have a team of mentors, advisors, advocates, sponsors, and champions. High-quality mentorship is essential for the ability of graduate students to complete dissertations, apply for jobs, get interviews, get postdocs, get tenure-track jobs, and to eventually get tenure. Nonexistent or poor-quality mentorship in academia has detrimental, long-term ramifications. And academia is riddled with informal rules and informal networks. So, while mentorship in academia is highly unstructured and often very informal, it is also a necessary and consequential resource.
CENTERPIECE: Is this hard to achieve at Harvard?
BAUTISTA-CHAVEZ: I knocked on so many doors and walked across campus so many times, looking for supportive faculty and supportive environments. I took courses in sociology, education, and law school. The Weatherhead Center and the GSA program was one of the many doors I knocked on. It can feel defeating to approach a faculty member and realize that that person is not available or perhaps that it's not a good match. Not everyone can be the supportive mentor that you need. But I do think there are people who do really want to see you succeed and who will find interest in your work. Some of my committee members ended up not even being from Harvard. Dr. Anne Sartori from MIT was teaching classes in the Department of Government at Harvard during one semester, and that’s how I met her. She became one of my advisors and a champion of mine. So, for folks at Harvard, I also encourage extending your mentorship search beyond Cambridge.
Harvard is a tough place. There has been recent attention to just how unequal and unfair Harvard can be, and the power relations and networks that sustain these inequalities. During my time at Harvard, I saw doctoral students of color quietly get pushed out, asked to leave with a master’s degree. I once received a very discouraging email from a professor with a powerful reputation in political science saying that my coursework was “disappointing.” I remember crying alone in the snow, feeling like I should drop out. I didn’t, and that was mostly because I thought about my immigrant mother’s own journey of navigating difficult places in this country. I was learning the hard way that some folks aren’t going to invest in your success and well-being, but others will. And that’s important. Some folks really do want to see you be well and do well.
CENTERPIECE: Are you happy at ASU?
BAUTISTA-CHAVEZ: I have felt welcomed and in-community at ASU. ASU serves a large first-generation college student population, and that is very important to me, being a first-gen myself. In the past year, I’ve taught three new courses, and each time I want students to come out of my courses feeling confident and capable of developing their own original ideas and projects.
CENTERPIECE: What classes are you teaching at ASU?
BAUTISTA-CHAVEZ: Last semester I taught two new courses: an undergraduate immigration politics course and a second class that merged my interests in public policy and bureaucracy.
I’m currently also teaching an immigration class at the graduate level, and this class is actually very much informed by my time at the Weatherhead Center. The class is called “The Politics of International Migration and Expanding Borders.” The course moves across levels of analysis—international, national, subnational, transnational—and engages various theoretical frameworks across political science and other disciplines. It was inspired by my time at the Weatherhead Center because it was through this graduate fellowship that I came to be in a community with researchers from across disciplines who were doing research across the world. Through attending GSA meetings and events at the Weatherhead Center I expanded my own thinking and research regarding migration and borders.
CENTERPIECE: How do you integrate research into your teaching?
BAUTISTA-CHAVEZ: Research is something I integrate into my classes, even at the undergrad level. It’s important to me that all my students create their own project. I consider undergraduate research opportunities as one way of contributing to social justice. This is partly because students gain tangible research skills, like developing a research design or collecting and analyzing data. Most importantly, for me, is that as they go through the research process, students also develop an identity as a knowledge producer and as a rising expert. This is particularly important for students of color, first-generation college students, and students from low-income families. We are still too often not seen or heard or treated as experts. Communities of color and low-income families are often the subjects of research, but we deserve and must also be experts and we must also lead research endeavors. That’s why I’ve prioritized integrating research training into all aspects of my research, teaching, and mentorship.
One additional way I’ve done this work at ASU is by working with undergraduate student researchers as part of the Junior Fellows Program at the School of Politics and Global Studies. Through this program, students work with faculty members on research projects at ASU and receive course credit. I have trained and mentored two research teams this spring semester. One team has conducted literature reviews on US immigration bureaucracy and is currently analyzing Department of Homeland Security budgets over time. The second team is conducting case studies and building a database of Latinx organizations in the state of Arizona. We’ve also done resume editing and I have helped each student develop a strategic academic and career plan for the next year.
CENTERPIECE: Do you have any final reflections?
BAUTISTA-CHAVEZ: During my final year at Harvard, I noticed that the GSA Friday workshops were one of the few workshop spaces, in my experience, where the majority of participants were graduate students who were women of color. It was in this space that I saw these women of color take up a lot of space, showcase their expertise, challenge existing research approaches, present ambitious and rigorous research projects that spanned boundaries. It was also the first time I heard “thank you for your work, I learned a lot” in a workshop space.
As a first-year tenure-track assistant professor, I have developed community among other faculty women of color through ASU's Faculty Women of Color Caucus. So in my own way, I'm continuing to create these spaces.
- Headshot of Angie Bautista-Chavez. Courtesy of Angie Bautista-Chavez
- 2019–2020 Graduate Student Associates, including Angie Bautista-Chavez, have their final Friday lunch of the academic year via Zoom. Credit: Lauren McLaughlin
- Participants at the Western Political Science Association (WPSA) annual conference, Portland, Oregon, March 10–12, 2022. Angie Bautista-Chavez is seated center. Courtesy of Angie Bautista-Chavez