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Meet an Alumna: Erin McCauley

Posted by on Friday, September 22, 2017 in Alumni, .

Erin McCauley, M.Ed. 2016

Ph.D student, Cornell University, College of Human Ecology


 “I had never had the words for my orientation toward the world before discovering CDA.”

Q: To begin, where are you from originally and what did you do before coming to Vanderbilt?

I am originally from Mill Valley California, which is just outside of San Francisco. I studied Family & Human Services and Spanish at the University of Oregon and then was a high school teacher in southern Connecticut. I taught Spanish, Literacy, Life Skills, and a psychoeducation class at a charter school for low-income students with behavioral problems resulting from trauma.

Q: Why did you choose CDA?

Throughout my time as an undergraduate and as a teacher, I did work with youth involved in the justice system. In Oregon, I worked as a researcher and advocate for youth of color at the department of youth services, and most of my students in Connecticut were either previously incarcerated or were children of incarcerated parents. My experience with the criminal justice system taught me how complex the problem of mass incarceration is, so I sought a graduate program that specifically aimed to tackle problems that defy disciplinary boundaries. I also wanted a program that valued the voices of the people who experience the criminal justice system, as that population is often silenced. When I first read about the CDA program, it was like reading about myself—I had never had the words for my orientation toward the world before discovering CDA.

Q: What kind of things were you involved with during your time at Vanderbilt?

While I was at Vanderbilt, I was involved in a handful of research projects beyond my coursework. For my practicum, I worked at Project Return, a social service organization that helps formerly incarcerated people find gainful employment and reintegrate back into society. I was a research assistant for Dr. Suiter, who was conducting a program analysis at Project Return for an adult mentoring program for males with child support obligations. After helping collect quantitative data and conduct interviews, I used some of the data to write a thesis that explored the role of structure and agency for this specific population during reentry.

In addition to my work with Project Return, I received two external research grants from Policy Research Inc. with some of my peers (shout out to Leah and Zach!). One funded a mixed-method study that explored an in-reach program of the county jail system that sought to help incarcerated people with serious mental illnesses apply for disability benefits. The other funded a quantitative study that explored the relationship between housing interventions and benefits for families with disabilities who were experiencing homelessness. I also conducted interviews with a doctoral student who was exploring healthcare for incarcerated transgender people.

Q: Can you tell me about your doctoral work?

I am in my second year of doctoral work at Cornell University. My degree will be in Policy Analysis and Management, and my area of interest is how the criminal justice system affects families and communities. My body of research includes work on the intersection of the criminal justice system with other systems in our society (especially healthcare and education), the effect of parental incarceration on families and children, and the consequences of incarceration for historically marginalized communities (such as LGBT people and people with disabilities). I am interested in using community-based methods, econometrics, and demographic techniques to advocate for policy changes to reduce imprisonment in the U.S.

Q: How did the CDA program prepare you for that work?

I feel that through the CDA program, I had unparalleled opportunity for personal and professional development. First of all, the theoretical and methodological training I received in HOD was truly progressive. My experiences conducting independent research also gave me a tremendous advantage in the doctoral application process and exposed me to the remarkable accomplishments that driven women in academia can have in supportive environments.

Q: What advice do you have for CDA students and for others who want to get involved in your field?

I encourage CDA students to take full advantage of the ceaseless opportunity and support that is offered. There is no ceiling for achievement and experience in the CDA program. CDA is truly a magical little spot where people dare to challenge the established order of power, where community is developed and prioritized, and where you interact with some of the most intelligent and forward-thinking faculty and students. I encourage CDA students and others who are interested in my field to develop a small group of people who share your interests and your determination. I am so grateful to my peers from my CDA cohort (Hi Leah! Hi Dessie! Hi Ryan!) for their continued support and for the ways they continue to challenge me to be a better researcher.


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