When student research leads to deep personal transformation

September 13, 2021

Yahaira Vega now considers herself an advocate for LGBTQ+ rights, a subject she knew little about before her undergraduate research project.

A portrait of UM-Dearborn student Yahaira Vega.
A portrait of UM-Dearborn student Yahaira Vega.
UM-Dearborn undergraduate student Yahaira Vega

Yahaira Vega was a little surprised when she was approached to work on a research project led by HHS Assistant Professor Jean-Carlos Lopez, with whom she’d never had a class. It turned out, the referral from another professor had to do with the fact that she is trilingual, and much of the work Lopez needed help with required sifting through Spanish-language news and social media. The general subject matter itself — the culture of transgender women in Latin American and Caribbean countries — was certainly not an area of expertise. “To be honest, I was ignorant about this issue,” Vega says. “In my community, and what I learned growing up Roman Catholic, is that being gay or transgender is not normal. I mean, I remember hearing the priest actually say those things, and I don’t think I realized how much that influence gets ingrained in the way one thinks.”

Vega, however, is an independent thinker and loves obsessively researching things she gets interested in, so she jumped at Lopez’s invitation. The work, which was part of the Summer Undergradute Research Experience (SURE) program, took her deep into LGBTQ+ issues, particularly the “Mujeres Modernas” — Modern Women — a term of self-identity embraced by many poor and working-class transgender women in the Dominican Republic. Much of her work for Lopez’s team focused on literature reviews, but notably, that included more than scholarly articles. She also catalogued dozens of news stories, capturing a more inclusive portrait of how transgender women are viewed in Dominican society and how laws, policies and social norms impact their health, socioeconomic status and political freedoms. She even made daily observations of the Instagram accounts of several prominent women in the Mujeres Modernas cultural movement to get a sense of their online experiences, including the discrimination and support they receive.

Encouraged by Lopez’s philosophy that research is “non-linear” and often requires unexpected detours, she also dove into the latest social science on gender dysphoria. Vega, who is a parent, was particularly moved by young people's stories of transition in Latin American countries where the traditional Catholic influence in social and political life is very strong. “I found myself imagining a child, maybe 7 or 8 years old, starting to feel that they’re a little bit different,” Vega explains. “Maybe they like clothes or toys that aren’t associated with their ascribed gender. Then, they hit puberty and suddenly they go through the shock of not identifying with their bodies. The majority of times, maybe they’re rejected by their parents and end up, like so many do, with suicidal thoughts, or homeless, or in the sex industry. It really bothered me so much. I just kept thinking about how many children all across the world are made to feel like what they are going through is uncommon — when what they are going through is completely normal.”

The work on Lopez’s team has had a deep personal impact. Her “ignorance” on the topic has been replaced with a kind of compassion that’s inspiring some quiet advocacy for LGBTQ+ issues in her own life. Insights from her research now regularly find their way into personal conversations with friends and family, many of whom hold more traditional views. And one of the biggest personal payoffs has been an even deeper relationship with a cherished nephew, who identifies as gay. “He’s doing very well now, but he has gone through so much in his life. He struggled getting employment, he went through depression, and had to deal with a family that didn’t respect him,” Vega says. “Now, I feel like I understand so much better what he was probably experiencing, and we’ve had some great conversations about some of what I’ve learned through my research. Honestly, I wish the project was in my life a long time ago. It is so important for everyone to understand what individuals of the LGBTQ community experience from childhood through adulthood. If they did, I think they’d become more understanding too.”

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Story by Lou Blouin. If you liked this article, you’ll be excited to hear we’re covering 2021 SURE projects all month long, including this story about autonomous vehicle research. And check out our preview to this series, which explores how SURE is growing the student research culture on the UM-Dearborn campus.

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