Truman Scholar works for the future in public service: UNM Newsroom


A traumatic experience as a teenager drives a University of New Mexico student’s research experience and her plans for a future in public service.

Abrianna Morales, who was named a Truman Fellow earlier this year, found a network of peers serving in their own communities when she attended Truman Fellow Leadership Week this summer and is now looking forward to working as an intern in Washington. , DC next year. .

In addition to Truman’s leadership training, Morales received funding for his future graduate studies in preparation for a career in public service. The Harry S. Truman Scholarship is considered the “Premier Graduate Scholarship for Aspiring Public Service Leaders in the United States”.

Morales is currently a senior at UNM majoring in psychology and criminology with a minor in math and will graduate in the spring of 2023. At age 15, while still in high school, she was sexually assaulted .

“It was, in a word, devastating,” Morales said in a 2017 interview with the Sun of Las Cruces.

The ensuing experience of navigating the justice system, the feeling of isolation, and the lack of resources and support fueled her determination to help other young victims of sexual assault. As a result of this experience, she created the Sexual Assault Youth Support Network (SAYSN), an online advocacy and support organization, and looks forward to using her research to further advocate for young victims of sexual assault.

“I reported my own sexual assault to the authorities in 2016, the case was eventually dismissed due to speed of trial issues, in part due to the 2021 pandemic. Having experience with the justice system in a pre and post-COVID world has shaped my desire to learn more about the impact of the pandemic on how our justice system does or does not serve victims of crime,” she explained. .

Like a Scholar TrumanMorales was among 58 college students across the country who aspire to become leaders in public service and attended Truman Scholars’ Leadership Week (TSLW) in President Harry S Truman’s hometown of Liberty, Mo. Kiyoko Simmons of the UNM Center for Academic Excellence and Leadership Development (CAELD) guiding her through the application process which emphasized her past leadership experience, dedication to public service and political interests.

“After being selected, I had the opportunity to attend Truman Scholars Leadership Week where I met Truman Scholars across the country who are doing amazing work in their own communities. Next summer, I will have the opportunity to work as an intern in Washington, DC, alongside my fellow scholars, as part of the Summer Institute. Being a Truman Scholars also means I have up to $30,000 available to fund graduate school toward a career in public service,” Morales explained, adding, “For me, however, being a Truman Scholars provided me with an invaluable network of public servants and professionals dating back to the inaugural class in 1977. The friends and connections I have gained since being named a Truman Fellow mean everything to me – far more than the $30 prize $000 itself.

Besides being a Truman Scholar, Morales is also a McNair Fellow at UNM. Being a McNair Scholar gives her access to intensive academic counseling and learning opportunities that prepare her for graduate school. As part of the program, she must work with a faculty mentor on a research project to gain research and presentation experience.

“My research interests, which focus on the prevention of sexual violence and victims’ experiences of justice within the criminal justice system, are very much influenced by my own personal experience as a survivor of sexual assault and an advocate for the rights of victims. In other words, I see research as an extension of the advocacy work I have been doing since I was 15,” she noted.

Morales worked with a sociology professor Lisa Broidy and Jaymes Fairfax-Columbo, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, to study how changes to the legal system in the age of the pandemic, such as Zoom and masking, have changed the way professionals in the system facilitate procedural justice for victims of criminal acts.

“The opportunities available to me as a McNair Fellow have been incredibly beneficial. The research experience I gained, as well as the guidance I received from McNair/ROP staff, not only clarified my own academic and professional interests, but also made graduate study and academic careers much more accessible. More importantly, however, being a McNair Scholar introduced me to some of the greatest mentors and friends I could have as a student at UNM.

Morales is also a student at Specialized program in psychology, which includes research-based learning and rigorous coursework aimed at preparing students for graduate and professional study. As an honors student, she works with an associate professor of psychology David Witherington on an independent research project that seeks to examine children’s perceptions of appropriate and inappropriate adult-child interactions, with the aim of using these findings to inform more effective community-based child sexual abuse prevention initiatives.

Morales’ McNair research project examines how changes to the justice system brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic have altered victims’ experiences of procedural justice or the perceived fairness of the criminal justice system.

“Specifically, I’m conducting interviews with system professionals such as victim advocates, law enforcement, prosecutors and victims’ attorneys to see how things like Zoom and masking have changed the way they interact with victims, collaborate with other professionals and, by extension, how they are able to facilitate a fair procedural experience for victims of crime,” she explained. “Given the novelty of the pandemic, we really don’t know much about its impact on victims’ experiences in the justice system. We are also unclear about the role of professional collaboration in victims’ procedural justice experiences.

“I hope this research can fill these knowledge gaps and can be used to optimize outcomes as we navigate justice in a post-pandemic world. I hope to publish this research, but I would also like to find a way to share my findings with the community, so that we can use them to inform our justice system’s approaches to serving stakeholders, especially victims.

Along with all of his research work, Morales recently revamped the SAYSN website. As of early 2022, over 300,000 people from around the world have visited the website. In the meantime, SAYSN is visible on social networks via instagram, Twitterand Facebook.

After graduation, she plans to take a year off to work on developing the SAYSN and some collaborative projects with the National Organization for Victim Assistance, including a U.S. Bureau of Justice Violence Against Women grant to provide training and technical assistance to college campuses invested in assault prevention sexual violence, domestic violence and harassment.

Morales intends to pursue a Juris Doctor/Ph.D. in Criminology with the goal of conducting research at the intersection of law and criminology as it relates to victims of crime, with the goal of making advance progressive criminal justice reform that promotes victims’ rights and experiences of justice within the justice system.

“I hope to use my education and experience as a victim advocate to unite research, practice and policy in service to survivors of sexual violence. Truly, I want my research to serve the communities it seeks to examine, whether through the development and delivery of improved programs, or through new and improved policies,” she said.

Morales also credits mentors from the School of Architecture and Planning Joni Palm Tree and lead planner James Foty on his first research project, Stories of Resilience New Mexico, as well as the mentorship and guidance of the MNU McNair/ROP staff and associate professor at the Manuel Montoya School of Management at the Center for Academic Excellence and Leadership Development about his research, his diploma and his career path.

“The research experience I gained at UNM is only a fraction of what makes being a Lobo so great. The friends, mentors, and community I have found on campus have allowed me to grow in ways I never thought possible, both as a student and as a person,” she said, adding, “I want to encourage everything the student world to take advantage of all the resources and opportunities available to them at UNM. Talk to your professors, see how you can get involved in research, and never be afraid to ask questions!


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