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Chris Wetzel is currently a Professor of Sociology and Director of the Interdisciplinary Studies Program at Stonehill College. He received his BA from the University of Michigan, MA and PhD from the University of California Berkeley, and was a UC President’s Postdoctoral Fellow at UCLA. His research and teaching continue to explore questions about structures of power, construction of meanings, and how groups navigate change. Past work has analyzed these dynamics for particular Native American communities, reflected in Gathering the Potawatomi Nation: Revitalization and Identity (University of Oklahoma Press, 2015). His newer research builds on these themes through two projects: the first considering how contemporary college students see the landscape of activism on campus, the second exploring state-level policy formation around gaming.
Why did you decide to participate in UROP as an undergraduate?
I wanted to have a certain kind of college experience, although I was out of state and although I needed pell grants to make things work, I really liked the idea of being able to be at a big research university - the two things that really made a difference for me at Michigan was one, I had gotten accepted into the honors program so I could tap into some other classes. And 2, getting into the UROP program struck me as being really interesting, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, I had come to Michigan thinking as a working class kid that probably end up being a Lawyer because my Mom was a teacher and I knew I didn’t want to be that. UROP could probably be an interesting place to make some connections, to meet a faculty member at this bigger place and to just kind of dig in and do some work, so that’s kind of where I started from when I was thinking “why research?”
How did your UROP experience shape or inform your academic and career trajectory?
My lens was really broad from the moment I knew I wasn’t going to do medical sciences or engineering, but I figured there was something I could do that would be interesting within that world so, you know I got the letter from Sandy and I figured out when I got to campus. I remember seeing the UROP office, I remember reading through the project guide and I went out to places that felt like they were sort of connected to law school - I interviewed for a political science position, I interviewed for a history position and I said ehh I don’t really know if it was all that interesting. It was starting to get into September, I knew we had the institutional deadline to kind of find the position, I needed to get working because I needed the work study dollars to help pay bills, so I ended up interviewing for this position in the school of natural resources and the school of natural resources and the environment on environmental justice. I don’t think I knew anything particular about it environmental justice, but I thought well I know something about the environment. I went and interview with Dorceta Taylor, she offered me the position on the spot, I was really impressed with her as a human being. I just kind of thought she seemed really smart, the project seemed interesting and she seemed like she was going to give me a lot of things to do and so I said yes right away and that was where things started to really change from.
What do you think you learned from your UROP experience?
Substantively I learned a ton, professionally, I learned a ton. Dr. Taylor gave me a lot of work to do, she kept me super busy that year, she was helping me really think about environmental justice as a framework, she gave me a lot of reading to do which kind of got me up to speed on the projects she was working on which was really at that point during the year, surveys of students thinking about racial differences and how students conceptualize the meaning of environment and she was clear with her hypothesis from the beginning that there was going to be some racial disparities across that and so she put tools in my hand to do surveys of students at Michigan to analyze data that she was getting from other places. It was sort of a whirlwind in terms of how much things I was having to learn about the kind of work we were doing together. I really appreciated how she spent a lot of professional development time with me too in terms of what it meant to be a good researcher what it meant to her as a woman of color and faculty member to kind of have to navigate professional landscapes and even her talking to a working class white guy, but I really appreciated the directness she used to approach those things. I spent my first year outside of working with Dr. Taylor - I was a political science major the first semester, I was a history major the second semester, I didn’t really like either of those things and it was kind of interesting because as an 18 year old it really didn’t occur to me to ask her what she had degrees in, but it was great because that first summer she offered me a job in Ann Arbor to stay and do research for her again and so I told her about my frustrations about my own path through Michigan trying to figure out what was interesting, I felt like an out of state student I wasn’t sure if I should come back, I couldn’t figure out what I wanted to do with my life and she asked me what I had enjoyed that year and I told her “I loved working for you” and she then proceeded to tell me she had a PhD in Sociology from Yale and I said “Yeah! I know I don’t know that much about trees but I must be a Sociologist” - So literally I walked across campus I went to the LSA building and talked to the Soc people there and told them my goal was to still graduate in three years, I want to write an honors thesis about environmental justice issues, can we make it work? And they were great, they were really understanding, Dr. Taylor continued to be supportive of me, so yeah, she sort of - again, just because of the scholar, mentor and human being she was it ended up changing my whole framework of what I was going to do at Michigan.
Did you end up studying Sociology?
That’s why still to this day I’m a Sociologist, I got my PhD in Sociology because of Dorceta Taylor, absolutely
Oh, you my dude! I studied Sociology for undergrad
Oh nice! I wouldn’t have become a Soc major without her, it wasn’t on my radar and look even when I went to grad school at Berkeley to start my PhD I thought I was still going to do environmental justice work but I feel like - I’m a decade into being a professor at Stonehill, I just got promoted to full this year and I’m still trying to catch up with all the kind of substantive and professional things that Dorceta Taylor equipped me with in those two years of doing research with her.
Wow, you just said a whole lot… you got so much from that experience that you’re still reaping the benefits 25 years later…
Yeah, still now I’m teaching and I still like I’m channeling environmental justice work that I picked up all those years ago that I picked up with Dorceta Taylor.
You’ve somewhat already touched on this, but this is your chance to expound if you feel like you left something out. How did your UROP experience shape or inform the next steps you took in your academic and professional journey?
So, kind of taking us back to the Ann Arbor days, I knew I wanted to write a thesis project, I ended up writing in a way that was totally inspired by Dorceta Taylor. My project was on environmental justice organizing in southeast Michigan and so I still wanted to be able to graduate in three years, it was still out of state, it was still expensive and I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life and so Sandy Gregerman who was then the program director offered to let me stay on for another year and so I spent half of my time on the program side working with Angela Locks and Daren Hubbard and trying to kind of think about that side of the world and I spent half my time working on some of the outcomes research with John Jonives. It was great to have that space to sort of stock my years of being a student. I spent two years as a student researcher and I spent one year as a peer mentor for UROP, I know I liked working in higher ed, but I didn’t really know what came next and so it was kind of great to be able to stay working in the space of UROP to think a little bit about what people were doing next. Quite frankly, both professionally and substantively I think back to a lot of what I learned from Dorceta Taylor, I still steal lessons from Angela Locks and Daren Hubbard in my work as a faculty member now, cause I mean there since of how you run programs and how you engage with students, how you run meetings are still things that I go back to when I have to engage with students and when I think about working with peers across campus and across divisions. And so it was fun to kind of just spend a year working on both research and program development and then I applied to PhD programs because it seemed like a next step of what I could possibly do and once I started getting in places I figured I then sort out where I wanted to go and what was going to come next. Even now as a faculty member, working for the UROP program and those lessons that Angela, Daren and Sandy imparted in me still help me be better about working with students and other professionals on campus.
What advice would you give to current UROP student?
Reflect on the kind of things that matter to you, intellectual curiosity, personal questions, professional trajectories, and then working from the things that really matter to you, as a scholar, as a professional and a person ask questions across that network. Reach out and try to have a conversation that’s exploratory, that’s reflective and realize that people are going to want to talk back to you if you are open to asking questions and listening to what they share.
What should a current UROP student look for when picking a mentor? What made you experience with you mentors so great?
I appreciated how much Dr. Taylor saw my potential and was willing to challenge me to do the work she knew I was capable of but that I wasn’t ready to kind of see in myself. I always found her to be a really good listening partner and who understood where I was personally and professionally and who knew how to spend time to encourage me to grow as a researcher and a scholar and I know I keep saying it but I am still trying to figure out more than a quarter century later all the tools she equipped me with (Dr. Taylor) because I wouldn’t be where I am now without it. Part of me wonders if there’s sort of way to encourage students to find someone who makes them comfortably uncomfortable who sort of kind of pushes you to grow intellectually and you may not understand it until it’s a new millennium - get someone who says more than “great job” or “keep going” but sort of someone who pushes you because they see and know what research looks like.