Katie Dingeman-Cerda, the UC Irvine recipient of the prestigious 2012 Fletcher Jones Fellowship, holds community engagement front and center in her research. A doctoral candidate in sociology, she is on a mission to put her academic learning to good use and to help make the world a better place.

As an undergraduate sociology student at a small liberal arts college in Indiana, Katie participated in a unique, international study program called “Semester Around the World” which took her to Southeast Asia and the Far East. As part of this immersion program, Katie spent three months in India and later participated in a service-learning course through the development organization Heifer International in Honduras.

The compilation of these opportunities along with several experiential learning courses at her undergraduate college took her out of the classroom and into the local community.

“After witnessing extreme poverty and stratification for the first time, I found refuge in sociology,” she notes. These experiences helped Katie to draw connections between local and global situations, between history and culture, and between geography and her place in the world.

“It was this myriad of experiences that compelled me to become engaged in community service and social work in migrant communities – and eventually pursue an advanced degree in sociology.”  

For Katie, sociology is more that an academic pursuit – it is a way of seeing the world. As a 2012-2013 Pedagogical Fellow, she enjoys helping undergraduate students cultivate their sociological imaginations through active engagement with ethnographic data they collect themselves.

“I want to be able to engage students in ways similar to how my best instructors have fostered – and inspired – me,” she says. Engaging students is critical to Katie’s view of sociology. She believes that having students participate in community service learning, participatory action research in conjunction with local non-profits for example, are key ways to help a student grasp the importance of being part of a solution. 

Intellectual and Political Motivation

Before deciding to pursue her doctoral degree, Katie worked as a social worker, which fueled her passion to help others. Witnessing the experiences of undocumented Central American youth who had been detained by immigration officials furthered Katie’s desire to help those less fortunate.

“I saw several adolescents denied legal status and involuntarily returned to countries from which they had escaped,” she notes.  Most often, these individuals were seeking to escape from the violence, poverty, or an adverse family situation. “I wondered what happened to these individuals after deportation; I wanted to use my research to ‘give voice’ to deportees and, where appropriate, challenge the logic of contemporary modes of governing migration.”

Katie is intellectually and politically motivated by the study of international migration. Her dissertation explores the diverse ways individuals navigate their lives after they have been deported from the United States to El Salvador.

“I hope to be able to use my research to not only further academic and policy discourse, but to help students understand the human side of migration,” she states.

The Importance of Mentoring

Katie chose to attend the University of California, Irvine because of the School of Social Sciences' strength in the study of international migration.

“Since I have been here I have been working under the guidance of Rubén Rumbaut in the Department of Sociology. It was professor Rumbaut who encouraged me to pursue my research on the experiences of Salvadoran deportees.”     

She credits Rumbaut with providing her the independence necessary to becoming a good sociologist.

“He is, however, always available when I need guidance or just a little extra reassurance.”

Katie acknowledges that in addition to the endless encouragement and deep-rooted critical thinking he shares, he has been an incredible mentor for her.

“Not only has he written dozens of letters of recommendation on my behalf, but he has supported my career development in many ways.”

Katie points out that he invited her to speak alongside him at a plenary address at an immigration law conference and with his guidance was a co-author on a related article that appeared in the University of La Verne Law Review.

Katie also credits professor Susan Coutin with providing critical mentorship. She acknowledges that it was Coutin’s generosity of spirit – including personal introductions to many of her contacts in El Salvador and co-authoring a book chapter with her that demonstrate the collaborative UCI spirit. “This kind of hands-on mentorship is rare, and I truly believe that without it, my dissertation project would have been extremely difficult to accomplish,” she states.

Next Steps

Katie believes that anything worth doing is worth doing with ‘all one’s heart.’ She hopes to obtain a tenure-track position at a liberal arts college that will allow her to flourish as both an instructor and a scholar. She plans to turn her dissertation into a book manuscript and submit it for publication at a major academic press.

“I hope to continue exploring issues related to stratification within Latino and Latin American populations,” she states. “It motivates me knowing that my research has the potential to be used to influence real lives in addition to expanding the dialogue within the international migration subfield,” she says.

And when she is not conducting research - how does Katie spend her time? She enjoys relaxing through physical activities such as swimming, running, biking, hiking, and doing yoga. She can also be found practicing meditation, playing with her skateboarding English Bulldog Babbu, and spending time with her family, which includes her husband and newborn baby boy, Dylan.

-UCI Graduate Division

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