Elizabeth A. Sowers, Assistant Professor of Sociology

A CI faculty member since 2013, Elizabeth Sowers, Ph.D., inspires students to pursue careers that “leave the world a little better than they found it.”

What attracted you to Sociology?

Believe it or not, I wasn’t a Sociology major as an undergrad. I gravitated toward a major called “Global Studies” at University of California, Santa Barbara, because it offered me the skills and content knowledge to better interrogate and address the issues I found most compelling in my early adulthood – such as work, inequality, and economic disparities around the globe. Global Studies was an interdisciplinary major, which was one of my favorite things about it, and the contributions that sociologists made to the study of the issues I was interested in figured prominently in the curriculum. So, when it came time to pick a graduate school, Sociology was a natural choice for me.

I pursued a Ph.D. in Sociology because I wanted to do for others what so many of my wonderful professors did for me – to teach and conduct research on issues that are resonant and important to contemporary life, and hopefully, to change the way students see the world. I was lucky to have a number of excellent teachers, professors, and mentors who truly changed my life and the person I am, and I hope to do the same over the course of my career.

Why do you consider this to be a good major?

Sociology is a great major, particularly in the 21st century, because it offers students the opportunities to develop a number of skills and competencies that they can put to use in a wide variety of careers. Some students find it frustrating that there is no single career path for Sociology majors, but I think that’s a great strength of our major. Research shows that most young folks today will have multiple careers in their lives – not just multiple jobs – and so a major that offers you transferable skills that can be applied in a variety of contexts seems to be an advantage to me. Sociology students develop skills in writing and critical thinking; in evaluating evidence and making arguments; and in analyzing the world around them, to name just a few. There’s so much you can do with this degree!

What’s something others might find interesting about your background?

A lot of my students are surprised to find out that I am a first-generation college student, which is to say that neither of my parents attended college. When I was a student, I always thought that the professors at the front of the room had it all together and never had a bad day, let alone could have been the first in their families to graduate college, so I understand why my students sometimes find this surprising.

Describe a project or assignment in one of your courses.

In SOC 448: Globalization and Development, my students spend all semester learning about how globalization impacts development in a variety of countries. We look at the relationship between trade, foreign direct investment, financialization, and other indicators of globalization and how they relate to well-being (economic and otherwise) all around the globe. I hope they find this fascinating on its own, but where it all comes together is in the final weeks of the course when we do a case study exercise.

This exercise is a little like an improvised play – I give students a scenario and assign them roles – and they inhabit those roles and use what they’ve learned all semester in class to complete the exercise. So, I might devise a scenario where the students occupy different positions at a negotiating table for a global trade agreement, or I might decide to create a scenario in a less-developed country that is trying to attract a foreign company to build a factory there, to name just a few scenarios I’ve used in the past.

In any case, the students will occupy a diversity of roles (pro-business, pro-labor, community members, elders, foreign investors, etc.) and they will attempt to reach a resolution on the issue at hand. Students report that this is where all the academic knowledge they’ve learned in the semester “gets real” because they have to put it into practice representing their role and working towards a compromise, real-world solution.

I regularly teach our Capstone course, which functions on a community-based research model. Students work with one of CI’s Community Partners to use the research skills they develop in Sociology classes in a way that serves the partner. I think students get a lot out of our Capstone classes, including experience working as a professional person with a community organization and the ability to see at least one way that their skills as sociologists (in this case, research skills) can be useful on the job market.

In Spring 2016, my Capstone course (along with Lecturer Sunghee Nam’s Capstone course) worked with the Center for Integrative Studies to administer focus groups with different groups from the CI campus population (faculty, staff, students), investigating the social justice climate here on campus. I think this was a special project for students because it allowed them to investigate a place we all hold dear – our campus – while identifying problems and strategizing solutions.

What would you say has been the highlight of your career?

As a first-generation college student, graduating college, let alone continuing on to graduate school to earn two master’s degrees and a Ph.D. is a pretty big highlight for me and for my family. My parents sacrificed a lot to give me opportunities they didn’t have and I’m very grateful for the education I have received.

Education was a transformative process in my own life, and transformation doesn’t always come easy, but I think it’s worth it. I try to push students to do more every day and always to strive to be the very best version of themselves that they can be.

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