When Ashley Steen came to UCF, she quickly found research opportunities. As a McNair Scholar, she went straight into research that merged her fields of interest – psychology and criminal justice.
The Puerto Rican native had earned a psychology degree from Iowa and was drawn to UCF Criminal Justice Master’s Degree Program Because of diverse research opportunities.
She is currently working with Professor Fernando Rivera at UCF’s Center for Puerto Rico Studies. It was Rivera who came up with the research topic that Steen presented at the Student Scholars Symposium.workshops are part of it Student Research Weekwhich is free and open to the public, is taking place at the Student Union this week.
Her topic is “Capacity and Change in Climate Immigrant Receiving Communities in Central Florida.”
This project is particularly special to Steen because it focuses on the connection between Orlando and Puerto Rico. She hopes to graduate this spring, but before leaving UCF, she shares with us why she is so passionate about the power of research.
What did your research examine and how does it affect the community?
My research focuses on how immigrant-receiving communities such as Central Florida can prepare to help and sustain climate immigrants. Climate migration refers to the displacement of people directly affected by climate-related disasters such as droughts, floods, hurricanes and earthquakes. Our research specifically focused on individuals who had to leave Puerto Rico as a result of Hurricane Maria in 2017. We interviewed a variety of organizations focused on health care, housing, employment, social, cultural and recreational facilities, and finances to understand what migrants encounter as soon as they arrive. This research is important because natural disasters are common and frequent. By understanding the weaknesses and successes of these organizations, they can better prepare for another natural disaster and understand what is needed to properly sustain the incoming population.
How did you come up with the idea for this research project?
The research project was co-sponsored by my research supervisor, Dr Rivera, with the Urban Institute. Funded by the National Academy of Sciences’ Gulf Research Program, UCF’s Puerto Rico Research Center was selected as the research site in the Central Florida region. I’m lucky enough to join this project as it’s just getting started and has been working on it.
What should people know about your research?
Research on migrating populations is critical due to climate change. People are constantly moving due to emergencies, whether because of natural disasters or war. Knowing the areas immigrants are moving to is a way to help incoming communities, ease hardship, and provide them with all the necessities they need to continue living fulfilling lives. We found a number of barriers that stood out in our study – notably language, lack of affordable housing and financial services. Unfortunately, unless there is a large-scale reversal, climate-related emergencies will continue to be a more pressing issue, and no community can assume they are immune to displacement or acting as a receiving community.
Why do you think research is so important?
I think research is the foundation of innovation. It is vital to the world because it provides the evidence and understanding needed to come up with solutions to important problems. Without it, we’d be guessing what’s the best way to fix any problem.
Why did you choose UCF?
I chose UCF because of its beautiful campus, great location, and wide variety of programs and opportunities, especially the Puerto Rican Studies Center. UCF is not only close to my home Puerto Rico, but also close to my parents in Tampa, Florida. Being from Puerto Rico, I also appreciate that UCF is considered a Hispanic serving institution. It made me feel comfortable speaking Spanish and finding like-minded people on campus.
Why are you pursuing your major or field of study?
I’m studying (Master’s) Criminal Justice because I’m interested in understanding and helping people who are incarcerated. After earning a degree in psychology, I realized that incarcerated people face many barriers to mental health and healthcare. Currently, I am interested in finding solutions to these problems by learning more about the complexities of the criminal justice system.
Have you won or will be participating in any awards or scholarships this summer?
I’m working as a graduate teaching assistant with Dr. Rivera, funded by a Climate Migration Grant from the National Academy of Sciences.
In addition to this, last spring and summer I had the opportunity to work with Dr. Jill Viglione on a research project called IM Stepping Up. The research focuses on the use of mental health practices in prisons and whether they are used appropriately in prisons across the country. Participating in this project has given me a better understanding of the needs of the incarcerated population. During my undergraduate experience, I was fortunate enough to be a McNair Scholar and I learned more about the research process, development and presentation. The program helped me get where I am today and motivated me to pursue higher education.
What are your career goals?
My career goal is to become a licensed psychologist specializing in addiction, substance abuse and trauma. I want to focus my practice on people who are currently or formerly incarcerated and serve those who have no access to anyone. I want to connect with people in the Latino community because I speak Spanish and English.
What is your hobby?
In my free time, I like to go hiking, go to the cinema and travel. I love discovering new places, even if it’s right here in Orlando.