From sci-fi to financial planning, scholars spark new initiatives


What do reading science fiction, sharing meals, and building fluency in financial planning and programming for data visualization have in common? And what do they have to do with a leadership program for doctoral students applying their research to advance health and equity?

A year ago, we might not have been able to tell you. In recent months, though, scholars have stepped forward, sparking new initiatives that cover all this ground and more.

What if the program hosted a virtual book club?

One initiative sparked by a scholar was the formation of a virtual book club where scholars collectively read and discuss books of their choosing. For their first book, scholars across cohorts picked Octavia Butler’s award-winning novel Parable of the Sower, written almost two decades ago and set in the United States of the 2020s, when climate change, growing economic inequity, and corporate greed have destabilized society.

Scholars who participated in our initial book club meetings appreciated the chance to build relationships and community with each other. As Matthew Bakko (Cohort 2018) put it, “Our lives and work are probably both better for taking the time to engage in ways like this.”

Book club members also found the dialogue challenging and stimulating. “The discussions pushed me to think deeply and created space for that thinking to be messy out loud,” said Natasha Williams (Cohort 2020).

Readers were also struck by the uncanny resemblance between the sociopolitical world Butler imagined and the one we currently inhabit. In the pages of her novel, scholars found lessons about relationship, leadership, and the dangers of inaction. In their shared conversations, scholars also found hope. “I was pleasantly surprised by how positive and hopeful people felt toward the book and about our future,” reflected Anton Avanceña (Cohort 2018).

How about financial literacy workshops?

Another scholar’s idea sparked a recent workshop series on taxes, investing, and financial planning. A natural extension of the HPRS commitment to supporting scholars as whole people, the workshops were designed to help scholars build the lives they want by providing practical knowledge and tips.

Just in time for tax season, the series helped some scholars—including Leslie Salas-Hernández (Cohort 2017)—overcome anxiety and be more proactive. “Before these sessions, I have always held a deep anxiety around tax forms and the tax code ‘alphabet soup.’ This was the first year I took a more active role with my taxes. I even sought out a tax accountant for the first time!”

Just as the program helps scholars break systemic cycles and legacies of disinvestment and structural racism through their research, the workshops helped participants identify actions they can take to break related patterns in their own lives. Denise St. Jean (Cohort 2018) put it this way: “Given the wealth inequalities and widening racial wealth gap in this country, I realized that I needed to overcome my hesitations and start building more consistent habits now.”

For scholars whose families never had the opportunity to build wealth, or who avoided talking about money, the series gave them another lens to apply. “Growing up, my family and I were much more concerned about making ends meet than we were about asset accumulation,” said Alein Haro (Cohort 2020). “Participating in these workshops made me realize the importance of thinking, planning, and implementing healthy financial habits without seeing ‘finances’ as taboo.”

Don’t forget about programming

A scholar’s suggestion also catalyzed a hands-on introduction to the programming language R, often used for data visualization.

The workshop’s live, interactive approach made it especially useful to participants. “I appreciated that there was access to live support, which is very different from what is available in the classroom environment or to those of us with limited time and money for tutoring and additional training,” said Marcela Nava (Cohort 2017).

Some scholars were able to apply what they learned immediately. Chinyere Agbai (Cohort 2017) reported, “I’ve already begun incorporating it into my research! The R workshop came at the perfect time for me because I was working on several papers that could benefit from a few maps. After the workshop, I was able to create the maps with very few issues.”

Thanks to our scholars, our community is innovating how we engage with and learn from one another, enhancing the program experience in ways that will last for years to come.


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