Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2021 graduates.
Kendall Dawson, the 2021 Outstanding Graduate Student in ASU’s College of Integrative Sciences and Arts, said she has always had an interest in “people, culture and the way both mix to influence our actions.”
She’s also always loved school.
“The extracurriculars and friendships were bonuses, but I loved to learn,” said Dawson, who is graduating with a Master of Arts in narrative studies. “In K–12, I soaked up anything and everything. As a first-generation college student, though, I had no plans when it came to higher education.”
Scholarships led her from her hometown of Mount Prospect, Illinois, to Central Michigan University, where she completed a bachelor’s degree in communication with an English minor. Working as a resident assistant and campus tour guide, she developed an interest in student affairs and enjoyed helping guide many students toward further developing self-worth and academic ability.
“During my senior year at CMU, I decided to continue learning and apply for graduate school,” said Dawson.
Accepted to each program she applied to, she chose ASU.
“My career goal has always been to work in book publishing,” she said. “I decided ASU’s narrative studies program would help me understand many aspects of the industry, from the writing process of authors to a corporation's awareness of narrative trends.
“I also appreciated the program’s location, faculty and possibilities, and the ability to nurture the English literature studies I didn’t have time to delve into as an undergrad, while still engaging with my social science passions.”
In the flexibility of the narrative studies master’s degree, Dawson has particularly enjoyed the space to tailor her education to her interests.
“In my capstone project I’ve focused on the lack of inclusivity in children's and middle-grade literature, working alongside my faculty adviser — bestselling middle-grade author Professor Jewell Parker Rhodes.
“The project is an analysis of six middle-grade fiction novels that encapsulate the joys of Black girlhood, spearheaded by Black women authors,” Dawson explained. “It’s a closely personal endeavor that I want to publish and further expand on in years to come, to disrupt the negative culture and stereotypes of Black girlhood.
“Too often in popular and academic settings, Black girls are diminished of their full potential due to centuries of supremacy and sexism. My professional journey and aspirations have always stemmed from the joys and sorrows of my childhood and wanting to assist Black children in seeing themselves in the pages of a book,” she said.
Dawson also pursued independent research with Professor Wendy Williams, looking at censorship in children’s literature over a span of 50-plus years. She presented the work in CISA’s Humanities Dialogues at Poly series, the first student to present to this largely faculty audience.
In spring 2020, Dawson was awarded a Graduate College Fellowship to support her work.
In addition to excelling academically in her graduate studies, Dawson has been actively involved at ASU beyond her program.
She participated in ASU’s Graduate and Professional Student Association and was chosen to be a voting member of the University Hearing Board, which reviews cases related to academic integrity. Dawson has also continued to assist students from her undergraduate alma mater who are looking to pursue master’s degrees —helping them to edit personal statements, find assistantships and complete graduate school applications.
What advice does she have for others who are still in college or considering pursuing a graduate program?
“Take the risks. Venture out of state for graduate school; further explore an academic interest, or join a club that has nothing to do with your major,” encouraged Dawson. “You are more than the restrictions placed upon you to make the 'right' decision. You know what will fuel your soul.”
Below, Kendall Dawson shared additional reflections about her ASU journey.
Question: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?
Answer: Even as time "stood still" people kept moving and expecting others to keep up. As a people-pleaser, that was especially draining. However, these past two years I learned that self-service isn't selfish. My time is sacred and never guaranteed, and I am allowed to say no without resentment.
Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU and what was it?
A: Professor Asao Inoue put words to the feelings I had regarding whiteness in academia. His research on anti-racist classrooms and labor-based grading brought up biases that have been ingrained in me to perform and measure my worth. Learning from him opened my eyes to deviating from metrics and engaging in schoolwork from a place of personal achievement instead of pleasing others.
Q: Did you have any internships, student worker positions or research experiences that were important to you?
A: In fall 2020 I interned at ASU's online literary magazine, Superstition Review. I learned many skills and am proud to have played a part in its first-ever themed issue. During my time at ASU, I worked for the ASU Library. It was cool to see the behind-the-scenes of a research library. Plus, my department have been rock stars managing the pandemic.
Q: What was your favorite place to be at ASU, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?
A: My favorite place to be on the Polytechnic campus was the sitting area between Peralta Hall and Picacho Hall. I could admire the plant life and enjoy the looped animal sound recording on a nice warm day.
Q: What are your plans after graduation?
A: I am looking to join the workforce in the publishing field. I would love to continue and get my PhD, but a break from academia is best for me right now.
Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?
A: I would use it toward the creation of a comprehensive reparations fund for all communities who have suffered as a result of white supremacy. Economic disparity and lack of generational wealth are key propellants of discrimination and demonization when minority groups have been fighting through systems that have kept them suppressed from the start. Money doesn't just buy happiness, it buys security and peace.