Powers first at Texas Woman’s to win Boren Fellowship

TWU student overcomes hardship through learning

May 25, 2022 — DENTON — Petina JD Powers’ life journey has been long and arduous, much of it at the lower end of the socioeconomic scale. Homeless. High school dropout. Single mother. Survivor of domestic violence.

Determination got her on track for an education beginning in her 30s. She completed high school, became a film student at the University of Arizona, and is now a sociology doctoral student and graduate teaching assistant at Texas Woman’s University.

Petina JD Powers

“My life’s been about discovery and knowledge,” Powers said.

But in the next year, Powers is going to add 10,000 miles worth of discovery to her life journey.

Powers is the first TWU student to earn a David L. Boren Fellowship, which she will use to study the Hindi language this summer before traveling to India to conduct research.

The journey is in two steps: first, an 800-mile trip north to Madison, Wisconsin, located 75 miles from Lake Michigan; second, an 8,200-miles passage east to Jaipur, India, located 500 miles from the Arabian Sea. Talk about culture shock.

In India, Powers will pile up more miles traveling through the country to conduct research on how differing socioeconomic structures affect equality in quality of life, exacerbated by the pandemic. Powers is herself a survivor of COVID and suffered long-haul COVID symptoms.

The Boren Fellowship was created by the National Security Education Program to provide funding for U.S. master’s or PhD students to study languages abroad in regions critical to U.S. interests and diplomacy, including Africa, Asia, Central & Eastern Europe, Eurasia, Latin America, and the Middle East. Students who receive the award commit to working for the federal government upon completion of their fellowship.

“I’m still stunned,” Powers said of receiving the Boren Fellowship. “I’ve been applying for grants, scholarships, fellowships for two years. The Boren is the most difficult one I’ve applied for. Months of research to do it.

“We’re cultural ambassadors,” she added. “As a Boren Fellow, one of the most important things I had to argue was why I would be a good fit. With the Boren, you really have to prove why your language is important. They know why it’s important, they selected it. But they need the applicant to tell why it’s important.”

But what do Wisconsin and India have to do with one another?

The University of Wisconsin in Madison is home to the Wisconsin Intensive Summer Language Institutes, which are immersive programs teaching 30 languages from Arabic to Uzbek, Bengali to Urdu, Burmese to Vietnamese.

Powers will learn Hindi, the most spoken language in India. The June-to-August summer program in Madison will prepare her for the really immersive experience: the institute in Jaipur.

“We’re expected to speak only Hindi,” Powers said. “In India, we’ll go to the institute every day but we’re housed with families. These families agree to only speak Hindi to us. They don’t get us to and from school. They’ll show us how to get there, but then we’re expected to find our way there and back. You’re really forced to learn the language.

“I’m so thrilled. Communicating with people and breaking down barriers has been a life-long pursuit.”

Powers has a natural affinity for languages, including in Southeast Asia and the Pacific. Thirty years ago, she learned Nihongo, which is the language of Japan.

“When I look at the syllabary for Hindi, it reminds me of Nihongo,” Powers said. “I watch a lot of Hindi movies. When I hear them, there is a lot of Hindi that is very similar to Nihongo.”

The institute in Jaipur will be followed by an optional spring language study in January-May 2023, which will coordinate with Powers’ research program.

How socioeconomic structures affect equality in quality of life

Her research is a marriage of her background and the acceleration of her education in the last 15 years.

As a product of the 60s and early 70s, Powers was exposed to India’s culture, philosophy, food and music imported to the West by pop musicians, Hollywood, and hippie counterculture. So if you do yoga or meditation, thank the Beatles. If that seems odd, well, you just had to be there.

“It kind of informed me in my childhood.”

In her voracious learning, Powers was inspired by Amartya Sen's work on stratification and quality. Sen earned a Nobel Prize in 1998 for his contributions to welfare economics.

“His work really resonated with me,” Powers said. “I’ve always been aware of inequalities, but in the last two years my research became even more important. I began this research looking at disparate socioeconomic structures before the pandemic hit, then switched it to looking at COVID recovery. Maybe by looking at these disparate socioeconomic structures in India, we can come out with some possibilities we can apply in the U.S.

“The most important thing about my research is for it to be inclusive and participatory,” she said. “Since I first started conceptualizing this, I’ve had Indian scholars, students and average people give me their thoughts and their input, and help me develop my questions so I’m not sticking my western perspective on this.”

Powers’ research is rooted in the work in the late 19th and early 20th centuries of pioneering sociologist Jane Addams, recognized as the founder of the social work profession in the United States, co-founder of the American Civil Liberties Union, a leader in women’s suffrage and the first American woman awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

“I’ll conduct an empirical comparative macro-level structured survey,” Powers said. “Then, film interviews with some participants. The empirical study is translated to a film.”

The project will produce two reports: one written, one on film. The film, she believes, will take empirical data beyond academia.

“With the scientific and socially important information that we disseminate, we need to change the way we present the messaging and make this accessible, so the average person can understand,” Powers said. “Until we have informed understanding, we’re not going to have equality. Too much of our information is privileged because we present these highly scientific reports. I’m going to have a scientific report, but I’m also going to have a film that anybody can see and get the same socially important information.”

Powers begins this journey in June when she departs for Wisconsin.

Media Contact

David Pyke
Digital Content Manager

Page last updated 4:42 PM, October 9, 2023