This winter, for our seasonal series entitled “Professorship and Mentorship,” PCURs interview a professor from their home department. In these interviews, professors shed light on the role that mentorship has played in their academic trajectory, including their previous experiences as undergraduate and graduate students as well as their current involvement with mentorship as independent work advisers for current Princeton undergraduates. Here, Rafi shares his interview.
I met Professor Pérez last semester as a student in her course on Commodity Histories. Throughout the semester, I was inspired by her commitment to interdisciplinary research and her focus on subjugated histories. I was excited to hear about her personal research journey and any advice she might have for a confused undergrad like me.
Did you know you wanted to be a historian as an undergraduate?
No, I was a somewhat clueless undergraduate. I had no idea what I was doing, or what discipline I wanted to be in, or even what the differences were between different disciplines. I ended up doing my Bachelor’s Degree in International Affairs—I don’t even quite know why. It wasn’t until my senior year that I discovered a discipline that really matched my interests. In my senior year, I took a geography course taught by a feminist geographer and realized, “Oh, this is what I like! Geography’s so cool!”
So what did you do after graduation?
I wasn’t sure what to do after I finished undergrad, so I started working in women’s clinics in Denver and tried to give myself some time to figure out what to do next. It wasn’t a seamless journey into my Ph.D. Even after completing my Master’s, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I thought I wanted to become a nurse practitioner. I worked in HIV prevention research, and I worked at a teen clinic in San Francisco for a few years. And then I realized: no, I want to go back to history.
Do you recommend taking time off between degrees?
I think it was good to take time off. There is a lot of pressure to know exactly what you want to do and to move really quickly from one stage to the next. But it’s okay to take time off in between—especially if you plan to work with people in your future. If you’ve only ever been in educational institutions, you don’t have a lot of life experience beyond that.
What brought you to History?
I did a Master’s in Latin American Studies at Berkeley, where I got to take courses in lots of different disciplines—anthropology, geography, history, sociology. From there, I realized that history was the right fit for me. I loved that it’s about narrative and storytelling, and there was already something historical about the way I was approaching my research. Every time I wanted to understand something better, I automatically started asking why—which then would, inevitably, bring me back to the past.
How did you discover your research topic?
While I was working at women’s clinics in Denver, the state started requiring anyone who offered state-funded services to prove that their patients were lawful residents of the state. The clinic where I worked received some state funding for breast cancer screenings, so we had to start asking women for their IDs. We had done a lot of work developing trust relationships with Spanish-speaking communities in Denver and this put us in a really uncomfortable position. I felt really frustrated with that experience and wanted to do a project examining how those state-specific policies had affected undocumented people in Colorado at that time. So for my Master’s, I ended up going back to Colorado and doing a bunch of interviews across the state. In those interviews, I kept hearing from people: “if you really want to understand anti-Mexican racism and xenophobia in Colorado, you have to go back to the sugar beet industry.” I was surprised by that. I didn’t even know what a sugar beet was. What was this industry? Why did it matter for this longer history of racism against Mexicans in Colorado?
I went to graduate school in History thinking I was going to focus on Mexican migrant workers in the sugar beet industry, but I ended up discovering this whole ideological construction that got built around planting European sugar beets in Colorado—how the sugar beet industry became a way of “Americanizing” the land in the U.S. West after the Indian Wars. I wouldn’t have thought that sugar beets were so interesting until I actually got into it and started opening up all these new doors!
Any advice for choosing a research topic?
Some people approach research projects by thinking about how they can add to an existing body of scholarship. That was never my way. My way was always choosing something that I cared a lot about, or that I had some kind of investment in — so a history or a story or a problem that I felt really drawn to, for all kinds of reasons. They might be political, personal — but the kinds of reasons that keep you invested and interested in your project. Students sometimes choose a topic that they think sounds really good, but they don’t have a personal investment in, and then it becomes a real slog to get through. It’s hard to get excited about something you’re just not excited about. But if you choose something that feels important to you, there’s a reason to finish that project.
Also, people sometimes discount experiences they’ve had outside of educational institutions or within their family’s own histories. But those experiences and histories can shape what you’re bringing to your project. That doesn’t mean only work on your own community or your own history. It just means that some of those experiences might shape how you’re conceptualizing something else. Even though you gained that knowledge in other contexts, it can be useful in this one too.
Any other advice for undergraduates?
Be open and attentive to your environment. Use each new place to open up new avenues for thinking and developing your work. I obtained my Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota, which has a really well-known, longstanding Native American and Indigenous Studies program. I had never been at a university with such a developed and significant Native American and Indigenous Studies presence on campus. It totally changed my research. It pushed me to think beyond Latinx history. I initially saw myself only as a Latinx historian, but now I see myself as somebody who’s also invested in broader histories of race, as well as Indigenous history. Be aware of your surroundings, not just institutional surroundings, but what’s happening in the community you’re living in.
Since meeting with Professor Peréz a few weeks ago, I’ve started brainstorming a senior thesis topic for next year. I keep returning to her advice about personal investment in a research topic. It’s been such a useful framework for me—especially as I prepare to commit to a yearlong project. I’m grateful to Professor Peréz for her time and her generosity—please feel free to reach out to her or any of your professors if you’re looking for guidance—academic or otherwise.
–Rafi Lehmann, Social Sciences Correspondent