Anthropology Ph.D. alums celebrate first book publications together
Lydia Zacher Dixon and Caitlin Fouratt first met as graduate students in the UCI anthropology Ph.D. program and became fast friends. Today, they’re both professors in the Cal State system and celebrating the publications of their first books. Dixon is an assistant professor of health sciences at California State University, Channel Islands. In her book, Delivering Health: Midwifery and Development in Mexico, she uncovers the ways maternal health outcomes have been shaped by broader historical, political, and social factors in Mexico, from the perspectives of midwives. Fouratt is an associate professor of international studies at California State University, Long Beach. In her book, Flexible Families: Transnational Migration in Costa Rica and Nicaragua, she explores the intimate connections between Nicaraguan migrants in Costa Rica and their families back in Nicaragua. Below, they discuss their formative graduate years at UCI, their academic journeys, and the search for that elusive work/life balance.
Q: What were your first impressions of the Ph.D. program when you arrived as anthropology graduate students?
Caitlin Fouratt (CF): I was definitely nervous because I hadn't studied anthropology as an undergraduate.
Lydia Dixon (LD): Neither of us had.
CF: I was intimidated, but I had already had this positive interaction with Lydia via email and in person, and then, when I walked into the new grad student orientation, I immediately heard people calling my name. I was confused because I hadn’t met anyone else yet, but it was the rest of my cohort. They had looked me up and saw my picture. That was my first impression of the program—that this was going to be a very warm, welcoming group. And that continued as we met more students and faculty in the program.
LD: I agree. I think our cohort really set the tone. There was a family vibe right away. We had potlucks multiple times a week. We were eating at each other's houses all the time. We were studying together and helping each other on schoolwork too, but, in general, we were helping each other through that period of life.
Also, I had a two-year-old as a single mom and Caitlin was immediately so sweet and became such a help with my daughter. I couldn't have asked for a more supportive cohort, starting with Caitlin. It made those early years with my daughter wonderful. I dragged her to all sorts of activities.
CF: She was sort of like our cohort’s mascot.
LD: Since we had a solid base of friendship and collegiality, we continued to read each other's work as the years went on. It was so cool to see everybody's projects evolve. It felt so incredibly supportive.
Q: What did you learn as Anteaters that you've taken with you and used in your careers?
LD: I feel very grateful for my graduate training. After talking to folks from other graduate programs, it seems we received more guidance on how to be an academic. We received a good foundation in professionalism, exposure to grant writing, and time management skills.
Our teaching experience was also really helpful. The teaching was challenging to balance at the time but prepared me so well for a job.
Caitlin and I are both at teaching-heavy institutions, but we're both still publishing. The training we received in scholarly pursuits from our faculty at UCI continues to inspire and push us.
CF: I definitely agree. I would also say, that along with a scholarly approach and professionalization, the interdisciplinary opportunities across campus were important for me. I bet this is true for Lydia, as well. We're both not working in anthropology departments. Had I not worked with folks in UCI’s Center for Law in Society or what was then Global Peace and Conflict Studies, I don't think I would have thought to look outside of anthropology departments for my academic home.
The other thing I feel I’ve taken with me is the sense of collaboration in writing, scholarship, and collegiality. The program instilled this in us. This goes beyond the individual friendships. We received a model of how to conduct scholarship and be an academic without competition. That's definitely something I got from UCI.
In terms of the teaching, I was a pedagogical fellow as a grad student, and that gave me so much insight into teaching that I put into practice every day in my current position. In comparison, a lot of my colleagues felt unprepared for teaching when they first started. When I arrived, I felt like I had a solid foundation of how to approach it.
Q: Can you talk about your books?
LD: Both of us had been living in the communities where we ultimately did our research. I worked with women's health organizations in Mexico for many years before graduate school. For the book, I focused on three midwifery schools across Mexico and their relationship with the government and how they were training the next generation of midwives to address broader maternal health issues in Mexico.
CF: My book looks at the struggles of Nicaraguan migrants living in Costa Rica and their families back in Nicaragua. I looked at how migration and family are ways of dealing with economic crisis, inequality, and lack of public services or a social welfare net. Nicaraguans reconfigure their families so that grandmothers take care of children while parents are away or choose not to get married, because the legal contract doesn't offer more benefits than the flexibility of an informal marriage. These are strategies, along with migration, that Nicaraguans have been using for decades.
Q: In addition, could you explain to those outside your discipline, why this research is important? Or if it’s easier to brag about someone else, please talk about the importance of each other’s work.
LD: I would say that Caitlin's work is important because it brings attention to issues around immigration outside of the US. Her work brings attention to immigration issues within Latin America and the way they can have huge impacts on the economy, family, and social structures. I hope I got that right, Caitlin.
CF: That was lovely, thank you. I would say for Lydia's work, the topic of maternal health is so important in terms of sustainable development. Showing the ways in which these “traditional” practices of midwifery and the midwives behind them are finding a place within the mainstream biomedical system is fascinating. The ways in which the state is trying to take advantage of this is also fascinating. I think that the public thinks of midwifery as one thing, and Lydia's project draws out that there are different ways of doing midwifery. The ways in which they combine the biomedical health system and traditional cultural practices help determine how far they can get in the public healthcare system in Mexico.
Q: Lastly, do you have any advice for current grad students for their time in grad school and beyond?
CF: One thing that Lydia helped me learn, and my daughter really drove home, was to find a work/life balance, figure that balance early on, and maintain those boundaries. Otherwise, it's easy for grad school to become all-consuming and exhausting. You've got to figure out for yourself where those boundaries are and hold firm.
LD: That's a great point. I remember feeling jealous that my classmates who didn't have kids, were working at night and on the weekends. But then I came to realize that it’s better, for me at least, to work during the hours my daughter was in daycare, and then in the evenings, just have a life, do other stuff, and be a mom. I think that setting up those time management skills early on, by necessity, helped me through grad school and in my job as well.
The other thing I wanted to mention is to reach out to recent alumni who are at different institutions before you graduate. Learning about their positions and getting advice about applications is helpful. My sister was in the Cal State system and gave me a lot of advice. But if I didn't have that connection, I might not have understood what that job looked like and how to position myself for it.
-Jill Kato for UCI Social Sciences
-pictured: Lydia Zacher Dixon and Caitlin Fouratt.
To learn more about the anthropology Ph.D. program, please visit https://www.anthropology.uci.edu/grad/welcome.php.