Incoming NSF Graduate Research Fellow Intends to Study the School-to-Prison Pipeline

August 9, 2023

Lizet Garcia received support to study the carceral aspects of schools in Los Angeles’ South Bay communities, where she grew up.

Lizet Garcia headshot
Lizet Garcia (Photo courtesy of Garcia)

As a high school student in southern Los Angeles County, Lizet Garcia didn’t question the presence of drug-sniffing dogs, police officers, and security cameras on campus. She took the law enforcement measures for granted, she said. After all, the neighborhood in Hawthorne, California, where Garcia grew up was heavily policed too.

But as a geography major at Dartmouth College, Garcia, who uses she and they pronouns, gained a different perspective on their experience. They realized it was both unusual and carceral.

She saw direct links between her high school experience and prison, and, for her undergraduate thesis, she decided to study the pipeline between schools and prisons in Los Angeles’ South Bay communities. She received a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship in her sophomore year, which, among other things, supported her research. And in April, she received a prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship to investigate the topic further as an Earth and Environmental Sciences Ph.D. student at the Graduate Center.

Learn More About the Ph.D. Program in Earth and Environmental Sciences

As an NSF fellow, Garcia will receive a three-year annual stipend of $37,000 and a $12,000 cost-of-education allowance for tuition and fees in addition to a Graduate Center Fellowship (GCF) and a Provost’s Enhancement Fellowship.

For her thesis, Garcia conducted fieldwork with students and alumni from the schools she was studying.

“Students are often pushed to the side and treated like they don’t have rights because every day their rights are being violated by the structures and by this equipment,” Garcia said, referring to the surveillance in South Bay schools. “It was really important to incorporate the voices of youth and ask them what their experiences are like and what is it that they would like to see in replacement of these structures.”

After the interviews and focus groups, students, who had assumed that their experiences were normal, realized they weren’t. One student told Garcia, she said, “I see how wrong this is and how we students shouldn’t be treated this way.”

When applying for the NSF fellowship and for the Ph.D. program, Garcia wrote that it was important to “do the work to denaturalize these structures but at the same time work towards a better future,” they said. Garcia intends to focus on ideas that “center care and love and center youth voices,” they said.

From the students, Garcia developed some ideas, which include promoting Planned Parenthood services that are already in a school, expanding a school’s wellness center, and creating art and performing arts classes that would allow students to express themselves in new ways.

Garcia chose to come to the Graduate Center in large part to learn from and work with the professors, including Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Cindi Katz, and Nerve Macaspac, whose work she quoted in her thesis.

“They’re such great people, who have done such amazing research and really pushed the field forward,” she said. “I feel really nervous thinking about it right now, but I’m also really excited.”

She has reached out to several of the Earth and Environmental Sciences professors already. “They were just so kind and wonderful,” she said.

Garcia also spoke to students in the program. “They were just really supportive and kind,” she said.

Garcia advises Ph.D. applicants to start the process early and talk to the professors whose work interests them. “Maybe a professor seems really great on paper, in meetings, or these talks that they give online, but maybe when you talk to them that’s not the case,” they said.

Similarly, for the NSF grant, they recommend starting the process early. “It is really stressful to gather all these materials” for the grant, Garcia said. For students who are working in the social sciences, they advise using language that emphasizes the scientific aspects of a study. Garcia also networked with Dartmouth graduates who had won the fellowship. “I would be happy to help anyone else who wanted to apply,” they said.

Garcia aspires to be a professor. After receiving the Mellon Mays fellowship, she said, “I saw the importance of research and also professors who look like me.”

Garcia, who is Mexican American, was born in the U.S., but her parents were undocumented for about 30 years. “We used to share one room,” said Garcia, who has an older sister. “My parents both worked hard so that we could have a house.” Three or four years ago, her parents obtained residency status.

Her parents and the rest of her family are proud of Garcia becoming a doctor, she said. And while she explains to her aunts and uncles that she won’t be a medical doctor, she is still saving lives.

“I will continue to do the work with my community,” Garcia said. “No matter what, I will stay rooted in the work that I’ve been doing at home.”

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