Psychology doctoral student Jason Ashe

UMBC’s Ashe and Berry-McCrea earn national honors for doctoral research addressing inequities

UMBC doctoral student Jason Ashe and new Ph.D. recipient Erin Berry-McCrea have been selected for notable national honors as emerging leaders in work to address inequalities, in health care and in educational and professional spaces.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) has selected Ashe, a human services psychology doctoral student, for its prestigious Health Policy Research Scholar leadership development program. The program is designed for second-year doctoral students from underrepresented populations and disadvantaged backgrounds who want to apply their work to policies that advance equity and health. RWJF seeks to build a diverse field of health policy research leaders who reflect our changing national demographics.

Berry-McCrea, who successfully defended her dissertation in language, literacy, and culture this fall, received the 2018 National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Early Career Educator of Color (ECOC) Leadership Award. Barry-McCrea’s research focuses on how millennial Black women create and utilize digital spaces and tools in navigating professional and educational experiences. The award she received recognizes educators of color in the first years of their faculty careers, providing two years of mentorship to support research development, and funding to attend the ECOC Institute and the 2018 NCTE Annual Convention.

Intersection of health and faith

Ashe is focused on applying his research on Black religious beliefs, spirituality, and racial and ethnic health disparities to develop more inclusive and responsive medical practices and to reduce health inequities.

As a first-generation American, Ashe witnessed his parents face major challenges in everyday life in The Bronx, New York, during the 1980s. Both came to the United States from Antigua in search of more opportunities. His father gained citizenship through the Navy and his mother worked as a housemaid. Growing up, Ashe recalls his parents dealing with doctors who laughed at their accents and disregarded their ailments and their belief systems.

“When I was studying pre-med chemistry, I had a lot of existential questions of life and death that I could not find answers for. At divinity school I was able to take Christian bioethics, which led me to ask more questions about people who don’t have the choice to die peacefully,” explains Ashe. “I understood then that I wasn’t interested in being a physician and focusing on palliative care, but on answering more systemic-level questions about health and dying, specifically in Black communities.”

Ashe presents his interdisciplinary research.

That is what led Ashe to UMBC’s psychology Ph.D. program. “I wanted to understand the psychology of religion and health identity,” he says. “What does advocacy look like and how do we use our scholarship so that erroneous claims are not made to justify inequities in communities of color?”

Ashe found a mentor in Danielle L. Beatty Moody, psychology. The Human Services Psychology program she leads presented an avenue for him to apply his research, ideas, and innovative perspective. Moving forward, he hopes to create real change in communities of color and the medical community.

“Jason came with little exposure to psychology but came here with such a depth in math and science from MIT and two master’s degrees in theology and divinity from Duke. He wanted to bring those pieces together to create understanding around the health of Black folks,” explains Beatty Moody. “Jason was ready for the challenge of what it takes to move the needle so that we are not just talking to other academics, but applying our research to improve people’s lives.”

Creating supportive digital spaces for and by Black women

Berry-McCrea is applying her research in digital and media literacy to bring awareness to the online linguistic practices of Black women who create brave spaces to manage professional and social issues unique to their experiences.

Berry-McCrea’s graduate mentor, Christine Mallinson, professor of language, literacy and culture, and director of the Center for Social Science Scholarship, describes her work as essential for anyone concerned with educational justice and wanting to help, work with, and engage students of color in developing agency as engaged communicators.

“There’s no question that language shapes, and is shaped by, our social identities—both online and offline,” says Mallinson. “Erin’s work gives us a student-centered and culturally informed understanding of what factors shape Black collegiate women’s linguistic choices, both in terms of how they navigate the complex landscape of higher education, as well as how they find and create spaces—often online—where they can communicate in ways that are authentic to themselves.”

Berry- McCrea (third from the right) with her dissertation committee (L to R): Kimberly Moffitt, Elizabeth Patton, Christine Mallinson, Jason Loviglio, co-chair of committe, and Donald Snyder. Photo courtesy of Berry-McCrea.

Berry-McCrea’s experiences in higher education both as a student and as an educator have given her a window into the many contradicting messages that Black women receive. “As I climbed the ladder of academia I saw less people like me and more people that made negative assumptions about who I was because I was Black,” she says. “I’ve also had my Black female students share their own experiences with professors that placed negative labels and expectations on them. It was very clear that to be a professional academic for Black women meant deleting any trace of themselves in the way they spoke, looked, and carried themselves.”

These experiences have led Black millennial women to create unique digital spaces, Berry-McCrea notes, and these spaces have formed the basis of her research. Berry-McCrea found that Black millennial women often seek refuge, support, and resources through the immediacy and wide geographic net of social media.

Berry-McCrea defending her dissertation at UMBC this fall.
Berry-McCrea defending her dissertation at UMBC this fall. Photo courtesy of Berry-McCrea.

“Black collegiate women could post their experiences on social media and immediately receive validation of their experience, support from peers, and resources to move from isolation to finding a place to succeed even within these parameters without having to give up what was authentic to them,” she explains.

Berry-McCrea recently published this research in the journal Meridians, through the article “‘To My Girls in Therapy, See Imma Tell You This for Free …’: Black Millennial Women Speaking Truth to Power in and across the Digital Landscape.” She is now an assistant professor of media and communication studies at St. Augustine University in North Carolina.

Banner image: Ashe at UMBC’s 2017 Fall Opening Meeting. Photo Marlayna Demond ’11 for UMBC.