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PhD grad combines research for comparative cultures, languages with passion for sustainability

Jacqueline Shea standing in front of a concrete staircase.

Graduating PhD student Jacqueline Shea in front of Old Main on the Tempe campus. Courtesy photo

May 09, 2024

Editor’s note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2024 graduates.

This May, Jacqueline Shea’s journey as a Sun Devil comes to a close as she earns a doctoral degree. Beginning as a freshman undergraduate student double-majoring in Spanish and sustainability, she continued her studies at Arizona State University to earn a PhD in comparative culture and languages from the School of International Letters and Cultures.

When Shea started college, sustainability as a major was an easy choice and she even enrolled alongside her best friend, who is also passionate about sustainability. Shea has had a love for the environment for as long as she can remember, which was inspired by her mother who she describes as “very eco-conscious.” She recounts how her mom even started a recycling program at her place of work, characterizing it as a defining memory.

As Shea continued her studies, she discovered a love for Spanish after adding it as a minor. “I liked Spanish more than I thought I would. I became really interested in linguistics and decided to keep going. In one of my freshman-year Spanish classes, my professor, Steven Flanagan, encouraged me to turn my minor into a major,” she said. 

Transitioning from undergraduate to graduate student, her path began to diverge from sustainability and followed languages and cultures, earning a master’s degree in Spanish and, now, a PhD in comparative cultures and languages.

She dove into Spanish and culture studies, regularly attending the SILC Café as an undergrad and becoming a graduate teaching associate of elementary and intermediate Spanish, linguistics, Spanish conversation and composition, and sustainability. 

As a doctoral student, Shea continued to focus her research on language and culture, concentrating on classroom studies and applied linguistics. She even published articles on pragmatic instruction in the Spanish classroom and pedagogy in mixed classes, which are defined as those which include both second-language and heritage learners. However, Jacqueline remained passionate about the environment and sustainability in her personal life. 

When she took SLC 602: Comparative Cultural Theory with Natalie Lozinski-Veach, who is an assistant professor of German and comparative cultural studies in the School of International Letters and Cultures, her eyes were opened to the numerous potential, transdisciplinary paths that exist within language and culture studies.

This course can vary slightly depending on the professor who teaches it and their areas of interest, so it was a happy chance that Lozinski-Veach was Shea’s professor. As an academic whose wide-ranging areas of interest include posthumanist theory, one question Lozinski-Veach seeks to explore is how we can live more ethical lives, not only in relation to other humans, but also with regard to other animals and the environment.

From this course, Shea learned about the idea of “de-centering the human'' and that “humans don’t have to save the world; we just have to see the world. We are actors in a network, and we have to recognize our place and allow other beings to be seen as equal to humans,” as she described. After this lightbulb moment, her studies came full circle through her research and through her role as a teaching associate. 

Seeing Shea's passion for sustainability, Lozinski-Veach encouraged her to incorporate sustainability into her research. The two topics interwoven created a rich and nuanced topic of research for her doctoral dissertation: It became a study on the impact that language and culture can have on how a person views the environment.

To study this, Shea interviewed people who love the environment and grew up in the Sonoran Desert, concentrating on two different cultural groups: caucasian American participants who only spoke English, and Chicano or Mexican participants who spoke both English and Spanish fluently. From her interviews, she looked at the discourse participants used and analyzed the way these groups articulated their affinity for and connection with the environment.

She chose this approach to add a more positive view to research about how people view the environment. She explained that “there is already a lot of research on the negative side of our relationship with the environment, and I wanted to provide a complementary narrative that highlights the positive relationships that people have with the environment and other species.”

According to Shea's thesis advisor Danko Sipka, a professor of Slavic languages and applied linguistics at the School of International Letters and Cultures, “her research features an ideal measure of thoroughly thought theoretical insights from humanities, advanced field research and data gathering, as well as ... cutting-edge qualitative and quantitative linguistic analysis.”

The findings of this research are important for “anyone hoping to learn how to speak about, act out and shape their own or other’s love for the environment,” and its applications can be used in an educational capacity and in a political capacity, Shea added. Her path and her research remind us that language and culture studies can unlock a whole new perspective you might not have been aware of and will broaden the scope of impact in your endeavors.

This past spring, Shea was afforded the opportunity to further combine her two areas of interest, teaching SPA 414: Spanish for Sustainability and Environmental Studies.

Read how she combined her two passions to redesign this course, her best advice for current students and all of the valuable lessons she learned from professors in the Q&A below. 

Note: Answers were lightly edited for grammar, length and/or clarity.

Question: What was your “aha” moment when you realized you wanted to pursue the field you are studying?

Answer: My PhD is in comparative culture and language, with a primary focus in sociocultural linguistics and a secondary focus in affinity studies. “Affinity studies” is a term I coined for my area of study. It blends the environmental humanities and social psychology to understand how people connect to others.

One reason I decided to pursue a PhD was because I really enjoyed my time as a master's student. A big difference between grad and undergrad is that in graduate school you get to follow your interests more. Because of that, everything felt more meaningful and interest driven in a way that made me excited to keep going. I chose comparative culture and languages specifically after speaking with another student, Audrey Chery, who explained how the interdisciplinary program worked in a way that excited me. 

Q: Which SILC professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: This is a tough one to answer, because so many professors were very pivotal in the trajectory of my education.

To be fair, I'm going to list a few (in alphabetical order): Sara Beaudrie, Natalie Lozinski-Veach, Francoise Mirguet, Marta Tecedor, the Spanish TA coordinators Hope Anderson, Steven Flanagan, Sean McKinnon, Daniel Vargas and Anne Walton-Ramirez, and my SILC dissertation committee members Christopher Johnson, Danko Šipka and Juliann Vitullo.

If I had to pick the most important lessons, I'd say:

Juliann Vitullo taught me that it's less about holding knowledge in your mind and more about embodying that knowledge in your life.

Christopher Johnson and Natalie Lozinski-Veach both taught me that it's okay to draw from many fields to make conclusions about how something works, and to not feel pigeonholed into one style of scholarship.

Danko Šipka and Marta Tecedor both taught me a lot about how to conduct good research, and both provided invaluable nuggets of wisdom throughout the process.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

In graduate school, what surprised me most was how much I love teaching students! I'd been a community assistant and worked in nonprofit-based education during my undergrad, but being offered a TAship during my master's program was unexpected and initially very daunting. However, once I started the job, I absolutely loved it. Teaching has definitely been a highlight of my graduate school experience.

I love working with college students because they are so fun, especially freshmen. I was always an overachiever and took everything so seriously, so I like to go in and make jokes to give my students the space to breathe and feel some lightheartedness. I want them to leave with a smile or a laugh and leave with their day improved. 

Lesson planning and course design are also really fun. I taught Spanish for sustainability, and I was given permission to redesign the course. During the class, students learn how to use the language to have conversations about sustainability and environmental studies. I also wanted to teach them the multiple approaches to sustainability since there is a lot of overlap across different cultures and among different strands of sustainability theory. 

Q: What is something you learned from the School of International Letters and Cultures regarding sustainability and culture that surprised you?

Although I had a background in sustainability from my undergrad, the readings and discussions from Natalie Lozinski-Veach’s class exposed me to the world of posthumanist studies. One reading that made a significant impression on me was Jacques Derrida’s "The Animal That Therefore I Am." This reading challenges the established distinction of humans as superior and animals as inferior. I was happy that we also read works from Indigenous scholars, such as Linda Hogan. I am a firm believer that Indigenous knowledge, including traditional ecological knowledge, should be taken seriously, and this was the first academic context in which I’d seen that happen.

Outside of the classroom, I was also surprised by what I learned doing independent research. Once I realized I wanted to include sustainability in my work, I looked for connections between sustainability and linguistics and found "ecolinguistics," which looks at language and discourse and its relationship to the environment.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: The Secret Garden! I also love all of the half-inside-half-outside spaces with plants, like the one in (the Farmer Education Building).

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I'm currently a finalist for a few academic positions — I'm excited to see where I end up! Aside from that, I am working on some writing projects that I hope to publish within the next few years. 

For one, I am thinking of using material from my dissertation and breaking it down into a more digestible format about different ways to love the environment and how to show others how to love the environment. For a second project, I have some outlines of children’s books that were left by my nana, which I plan to develop into a series that centers the life of a dog and his human companion. Another project includes poetry — I have been writing a lot of poetry lately. 

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: To anyone still in school, I recommend prioritizing your health and well-being, which you can do in a couple of different ways. 

One way you can do this is by ensuring that you are well taken care of so that you can do your most productive and authentic work. At the very least, take a moment to breathe deeply at the start or end of each day, get enough sleep, move your body and nurture connections with yourself and others. This can go a long way in ensuring that you do not lose yourself in the sea of busyness and expectations, because there is more to life than this and your worth is not equivalent to your successes.

Another way you can prioritize your health and well-being is by aligning your work with your values as often as you can — if you have the intrinsic motivation to do whatever it is that you're doing, it will be a lot easier.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I think about this question a lot and, truth be told, this is not a decision I'd want to make by myself! There is so much to consider among the people involved, different stakeholders and various areas of expertise. I would need a better understanding of the diverse perspectives involved to answer this question better. 

But, as of now, I would donate the funds to support initiatives that spearhead sustainable solutions to combat ecological dystrophy, specifically those that focus on regenerative rather than technological approaches.

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