A traumatic experience in her teens is driving a University of New Mexico student’s research experience and plans for a future in public service.
Abrianna Morales, who was named a Truman Scholar earlier this year, found a network of peers serving in their own communities when she attended the Truman Scholars’ Leadership Week this summer and is now looking forward to working as an intern in Washington, D.C. next year.
In addition to the Truman leadership training, Morales received funding for her future graduate study 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 Spring 2023. At the age of 15, while still in high school, she was sexually assaulted.
"It was, in a word, devastating," Morales said in a 2017 interview with the Las Cruces Sun.
The ensuing experience of navigating the legal system, the feeling of isolation, and lack of resources and support fired her determination to help other young people who experience sexual assault. As a result of the experience, she created the Sexual Assault Youth Support Network (SAYSN), an online-based 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, with the case ultimately being dismissed due to speedy trial concerns, due, in part, to the pandemic in 2021. Having experience with the legal system in a pre-and post-COVID world shaped my desire to learn more about how the pandemic has impacted the way our legal system serves or fails to serve, victims of crime,” she explained.
As a Truman Scholar, Morales was among 58 college students throughout the country who aspire to be leaders in public service and attended the Truman Scholars’ Leadership Week (TSLW) in President Harry S Truman’s hometown of Liberty, Mo. She credits Honors College scholarship and outreach manager Kiyoko Simmons from the UNM Center for Academic Excellence and Leadership Development (CAELD) with guiding her through the application process that emphasized her past leadership experience, devotion to public service, and policy interests.
“After being selected, I had the opportunity to attend Truman Scholars’ Leadership Week where I met Truman Scholars throughout the nation that are doing remarkable work in their own communities. Next summer, I will have the opportunity to work as an intern in Washington, D.C., alongside my fellow Scholars, as part of Summer Institute. Being a Truman Scholar also means that I have up to $30,000 available to fund graduate study in preparation for a career in public service,” Morales explained, adding, “To me, though, being a Truman Scholar has provided me with an invaluable network of public servants and professionals dating back to the inaugural class in 1977. The friends and connections I’ve gained since being named a Truman Scholar mean everything to me–much more than the $30,000 award itself.”
In addition to being a Truman Scholar, Morales is also a McNair Scholar at UNM. Being a McNair Scholar enables her to have access to intensive academic advising and learning opportunities that prepare her for pursuing graduate education. As part of the program, she is required to work with a faculty mentor on a research project to gain research and presentation experience.
“My research interests, which focus on sexual violence prevention and victims’ experiences of justice within the criminal legal system, are very much influenced by my own personal experience as a sexual assault survivor and victim advocate. In other words, I see research as an extension of the advocacy work that I’ve been doing since I was 15,” she noted.
Morales has been working with professor of Sociology Lisa Broidy and Jaymes Fairfax-Columbo, assistant professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, to study how pandemic-era changes to the legal system, such as Zoom and masking, have changed the ways system professionals facilitate procedural justice for crime victims.
“The opportunities available to me as a McNair Scholar have been incredibly beneficial. The research experience that I’ve gained, as well as the guidance I’ve received from the McNair/ROP staff have not only clarified my own academic and professional interests but have also made graduate school and careers in academia much more accessible. More importantly, though, being a McNair Scholar has introduced me to some of the greatest mentors and friends that I could have as a student at UNM.”
Morales is also a student in the Psychology Honors Program, which includes a research apprenticeship and rigorous coursework that aims to prepare students for graduate and professional study. As an Honors student, she is working with 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 aims to use these findings to inform more effective community child sexual abuse prevention initiatives.
Morales’s McNair research project examines how changes to the legal system brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic have altered victims’ experiences of procedural justice or the perceived fairness of the criminal legal system.
“Specifically, I am conducting interviews with system professionals such as victim advocates, law enforcement, and prosecuting and victims’ attorneys to see how things like Zoom and masking have changed how they interact with victims, collaborate with other professionals, and by extension, how they are able to facilitate a procedurally just experience for crime victims,” she explained. “Given the novelty of the pandemic, we really don’t know very much about how it’s impacted victims’ experiences in the legal system. We also don’t know very much about the role of professional collaboration in victims’ experiences of procedural justice.
"Hopefully, this research can address those 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 also would love to find a way to share my findings with the community, so that we can use them to inform our legal system’s approaches to serving stakeholders–especially victims.”
Besides all her research work, Morales recently redesigned the SAYSN website. As of early 2022, over 300,000 people from around the world have visited the website. In the meantime, SAYSN can be found on social media via Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.
After graduation, she plans to take a gap year to work on developing the SAYSN and some collaborative projects with the National Organization for Victim Assistance, including a U.S. Department of Justice Office on Violence Against Women grant to provide training and technical assistance to college campuses invested in preventing sexual assault, domestic violence, and stalking.
Morales intends to pursue a Juris Doctor/Ph.D. in Criminology with the intent to conduct research at the intersection of law and criminology as it pertains to victims of crime, for the purposes of advancing progressive criminal justice reform that furthers victims’ rights and experiences of justice within the legal system.
“I hope to use my education and my experience as an advocate for victims to unite research, practice, and policy in service of survivors of sexual violence. Really, I want my research to serve the communities that it seeks to examine–whether that is through improved program development and execution, or new and improved policies,” she said.
Morales also credits mentors School of Architecture and Planning lecturer joni palmer and senior planner James Foty on her first research project, Stories of Resilience New Mexico, as well as mentorship and guidance from the UNM McNair/ROP staff and associate professor in the School of Management Manuel Montoya at the Center for Academic Excellence and Leadership Development on her research, graduate, and career path.
“The research experience I’ve gained at UNM is only a fraction of what makes being a Lobo so great. The friends, mentors, and community that I’ve found on campus have empowered me to grow in ways that I never thought possible, as both a student and as a person,” she said, adding, “I want to encourage any and all students 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!”