Small study partners inspire ASU doctoral grad to complete degree

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2021 graduates.

A brilliant linguist hailing from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, is one of the newest graduates from Arizona State University.

Bonus: Like most moms, she’s great at multi-tasking. Not only did Rayya Aljarallah finish her PhD in linguistics and applied linguistics with a groundbreaking project, she did it during a pandemic, in a foreign country, mostly alone with two children.

Aljarallah’s dissertation looked at social media around the Saudi royal decree on women driving, a 2017 proclamation by King Salman that, for the first time in the nation's history, made it legal for Saudi women to be issued driver’s licenses. Using a linguistic research method known as corpus-assisted discourse studies that analyzes word and word-cluster frequency, Aljarallah collected about 6,000 tweets from both supporters and opponents of the decree. She found that Twitter users’ statements about the decree and its consequences varied according to their support for or opposition to the decree and that the anticipated negative and positive outcomes were used to justify these differing positions.

Her work has implications in the realm of national discourse, providing information about how it may be possible to structure public discussions around potentially controversial topics. She defended her dissertation on April 2.

Aljarallah’s doctoral adviser, Professor of English Karen Adams, offered high praise: “Rayya Aljarallah is not only a gifted PhD student, she has also completed her dissertation while traversing the many complexities of being an international student with travel limitations followed by the spread of COVID-19. Even in the most difficult of times, she has shown remarkable commitment to and focus on her research.”

Adams continued: “She was among a group of students who helped organized local linguistics and applied linguistics conferences, and she was a presenter at the Annual Symposium on Arabic Linguistics which was held at ASU in 2018. She served also as a willing, unofficial mentor to some of the new Saudi women scholars in the master’s program. And she did it all in a context where she was caring for her young daughters, negotiating international issues outside of her control and most recently dealing with the difficult COVID 19 context where so many like her were distant from family members who were affected by these issues.”

We spoke to Aljarallah a bit more about the path to her doctorate and the plan for what’s next.

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study in your field?

Answer: I registered for an elective course, “Advanced Studies of Sociolinguistics,” with Karen Adams, one of my first courses at ASU. In that class, I learned about corpus linguistics and critical discourse analysis and how they can be used to uncover hidden ideologies and perspectives. I knew right then that this is what I wanted to do for my research. Uncovering the ideologies and the social issues reflected through discourse became a passion of mine.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you, that changed your perspective?

A: I learned that diversity and being exposed to a lot of different perspectives can be powerful. Interaction with students that come from all walks of life with their different backgrounds has led to more creativity in the classroom environment.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I was married to a Sun Devil, and moved after our marriage to Arizona. I accompanied him during one of his visits to the campus. Aside from the beautiful weather, I fell in love with the friendly environment that made me feel safe and included. I then took a look at their linguistics program to see the subject matters offered and I was pleasantly surprised to find out about their extremely knowledgeable and very approachable faculty. The sense of community I felt at this school the moment I walked on their campus made me so excited and anxious to apply.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: I have honestly been so touched and grateful for all the professors I had the honor of meeting during my studies. The professor that has made a great impact on me was Karen Adams. Professor Adams was a gem of information and knowledge and the same time very down to earth and approachable. While pregnant and working on my dissertation, the world was hit with the pandemic of COVID-19. At the time, my husband was overseas, and the subsequent lockdown meant that I had to continue this journey alone with a 3-year-old child and carrying the other. It was a very challenging time for all of us. Although I was faced with all these challenges, the support I received from my professor, the university and my friends made me never feel alone or unsafe. I kept focusing on my end-goal and presenting my drafts to my chair, Professor Adams, who would always provide me with great feedback and moral support. Her care for her students showed me how to truly be an impactful mentor in the future to my students in Saudi Arabia.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: While the PhD is a long-term goal, one must break it down into short-term goals. This helps in becoming more focused and having a sense of accomplishment that will give you the push to power through ‘til the end. Focus on what’s immediately in front of you. Finally, a PhD can be stressful, so remember always to find time to do things you enjoy.

Q: What was your favorite spot for power studying?

A: Pre-pandemic: Chandler public libraries (Sunset and Downtown), and the patio of a Starbucks near my daughter’s day care.

During pandemic: my patio with a Starbucks drink.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I plan to go back to Saudi Arabia and be a professor, bringing with me all the wonderful things I have learned and seen.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: Find a cure to debilitating diseases.

Kristen LaRue-Sandler
kristen.larue@asu.edu