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Meet Josefina Flores Morales

Today we’d like to introduce you to Josefina Flores Morales.

Josefina, please share your story with us. How did you get to where you are today?
I am a scholar, researcher, and doctoral student. My research tries to answer this seemingly simple question: What are the effects of inequality on the health of immigrant communities?

My training in sociology is helping me gain the tools I need to answer this question. My dissertation aims to understand the long-term health consequences of being undocumented in the United States. I am concerned about the aging undocumented population. They are often left out of national-level advocacy efforts and policy discussions. I am invested in the immigrant community, with a focus on undocumented individuals and want to make sure their freedom- regardless of age, education levels, etc.- is part of our vision. I hope to create relevant research that can inform all levels of policy. Beyond the practical aspects of my research, my scholarship also works as a form of archive to let the historical record show that there are undocumented academics among us.

I was born in Mexico, and my family migrated to the United States when I was a toddler. We arrived at the San Fernando Valley, the place we were to make our new home. The valley is a vibrant place. Approximately 40% of the population are migrants. I went to schools in the valley: Fair Ave. Elementary, Sun Valley Middle school, and John H. Francis Polytechnic high school.

Growing up in a low-income neighborhood within the San Fernando Valley, I was thankful to have many role models that helped me envision a future in which my family and community did not need to struggle. In my middle school, I became part of a Leadership program, which emphasized civic engagement and political advocacy. Because of this program, I was able to travel to Washington D.C. when I was an 8th grader. I was able to visit the White House, Abe Lincoln’s monument, and the 9/11 memorial site. This experience helped me understand the world outside of the valley.

After high school, I was very hopeful but worried. As an immigrant and undocumented person, financial aid at the time was not a given. Policies had not yet been implemented and the level of institutional support for undocumented college students was unclear at best. In my senior year of high school, I applied to as many scholarships as I could. I gathered exactly 4,000 dollars to pay for my first quarter at UCLA.

While many low income students have to think about how to pay for their tuition, many also have to consider extreme options in the absence of access to loans and federal student aid. I commuted from the valley to UCLA for my classes. I enjoyed the commute– it did not let me forget the fact that the bus is a perfect site to observe how the beauty of my community coexists with deep inequities. Workers from the Valley would mount the buses at 6am in the morning for their shifts as domestic workers in the neighborhoods around UCLA. We had the same bus route but not the same destination. My destination was a lecture hall, and theirs the Bellaire mansions, where they would have a full day’s shift of cleaning someone else’s home or taking care of others’ children.

At UCLA, I re-discovered my identity as an undocumented person. I became involved in the nationally recognized support and advocacy organization led by undocumented students on campus, Improving Dreams Equality Access and Success (IDEAS) at UCLA. I learned about the history of undocumented students and the ways in which previous generations had fought for and demanded more from the university. Their fight was what allowed me to eventually benefit from policies like the California Dream Act, which provides state-based financial aid for eligible undocumented college students. But I also knew that the fight for migrant rights continues. For example, there are many subgroups of undocumented migrants whose identities are shadowed by the mainstream immigrant narratives. We often forget about undocumented Black communities, undocumented Asian and Pacific Islander communities, and older undocumented migrants. These omissions in the dominant immigrant narratives have real consequences.

During my time as an undergraduate, I sought out mentors who were professors conducting research about immigrant communities because I wanted to learn about how I could also write some of the narratives of my community. I knew many of the prominent scholars did not bring a personal perspective to the table, and I felt that my perspective had something unique to offer the field of immigration.

I became immersed in research, and soon after that, I began to lead my own research projects. My first independent research project aimed to understand the perspectives of Latina factory workers in the San Fernando Valley. I interviewed women only to find that they often reported feeling daily pain due to their occupations. At the same time, these women were resilient and very independent. The coexistence of pain, exploitation and self-reliance was evident and was testament to the complexities of the migrant experience. I wanted to further explore these intersections and sought graduate school as a way to do this.

In my senior year of college, I applied to many doctoral programs. I actually started my academic training at the University of Wisconsin- Madison in the fall of 2016. However, as we all know, the November election changed some things. I decided to re-apply to doctoral programs because Wisconsin did not have the policies for educational opportunities for undocumented students that California did. In my second round of graduate school applications, I was accepted to UC Berkeley, UC Santa Barbara, and UC Los Angeles sociology PhD programs. I chose to return to Los Angeles because it was the place where I knew I could finish my PhD with the support of many mentors within the academy and outside of it. It is also where my family live (including my dearest 11-year old brother). I am now in my third year at UCLA, and I could not feel happier to be in the community that inspired me to be a scholar in the first place.

Great, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
The road to academia is rarely ever smooth. For undocumented scholars, some of the regular worries are magnified. For example, while most doctoral students who want to enter academia might be concerned about the job market, undocumented doctoral students are often concerned about whether we will be able to participate in the U.S. job market to begin with. Having people to relate to within sociology has been difficult- and I also would not wish this experience upon anyone. The truth is that in many states across the United States, the pipeline to higher education for undocumented individuals is nonexistent. As a result, there are very few of us in doctoral programs. I hope to see more of us in these spaces in the near future.

I have also tried to cope with the challenge of uncertainty. I am extremely privileged to have a U.S. degree and once I graduate with my Ph.D., I will have the advantage of having top-tier training in research, which carries a lot of weight internationally. If things don’t work out for me in the United States, I will likely explore the academic job market in places like Canada, somewhere in Europe or Latin America.

We’d love to hear more about your work and what you are currently focused on. What else should we know?
I am a researcher, scholar, and sociologist-in-training. My sub-areas within sociology are social demography and race/ethnicity. In addition to my training in sociology, I am part of a national network of Health Policy Research Scholars, a program funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. This leadership program, run by faculty at Johns Hopkins University, trains doctoral students in health policy and provides us the tools to communicate our research to stakeholders and policy-makers.

I have many ongoing research projects and all of them are about health, immigrants, and/or socioeconomic inequalities. I am mainly a quantitative researcher. This means that I use statistical tools to examine survey data (from the census, for example). I have some really fun projects going on at the moment. For instance, I am currently researching the extent of wealth disparities between documented and undocumented immigrants who are in older age. So far, my findings reveal steep differences on the basis of immigration status within every racial ethnic group.

I am very proud of the publications I have had in the past year. For instance, I published an op-ed in the Public Health post, and this article reached a wide audience. Oftentimes in academia, we have to wait years for our academic articles to publish so it was so nice to see this piece become available for all to see.

In addition, I am proud of a journal article that I collaborated on with my colleagues. It was published in a journal by the Federal Reserve Bank in San Francisco and it addresses how inequalities may emerge among older-aged folks as issues like climate change emerge. This topic was out of my comfort zone. I am particularly proud that I took this leap to publish something outside of my main research areas.

I am different from other sociologists for several reasons. One, I come from a very low-income household. Many of my colleagues are privileged in different ways- they grew up in a stable home, or have a middle class background or parents with a formal education. Doctoral programs and graduate education is often available to individuals who have the privilege to be able to take 5 to 6 years (often more) to explore their academic curiosities. To be honest, that rarely includes people like myself. I am also distinct from my colleagues because I bring my lived experience to bear on my research. A majority of the leading scholars of migration have the privilege of being documented; I think that hearing the stories of undocumented scholars is important to have on the table. Because of these reasons, I see my presence at the sociological table as a valuable and important contribution to scholarship.

Is there a characteristic or quality that you feel is essential to success?
One of the qualities most important to my success has been my need for balance. I try not to be a student/academic first. This means I prioritize other aspects of my life such as dancing (salsa, bachata, and kizomba), as well as working out, and spending quality time with my younger brother. Doing this helps me clear my mind, and eventually helps me be a better scholar.

I also take a lot of chances. I am the type of researcher who applies to almost every small grant, scholarship, and funding opportunity that I can apply to. In academia and research, there are many calls for proposals which aim to fund your research in general or a particular research project. In any given year, I apply to between 15-20 funding opportunities (sometimes more). This habit has, of course, emerged from necessity as there have been times in my educational journey in which applying for scholarships was not a choice. Now, it is something I do often, and something that I integrate to my academic routine.

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