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Nadya Vera, who begins her doctoral studies this fall in sociology, wants to be a problem solver. And it all started when she rescued a dog.

Vera is one of five PhD students recently honored as Tennessee Doctoral Fellows.

Tennessee Doctoral Fellows are chosen every three years; this is only the second group of fellows at UT. The fellowships are funded by the Tennessee Higher Education Commission and UT’s Graduate School.

Recipients are chosen from nominations campus-wide. The three-year awards consist of a $20,000 fellowship, a 25 percent assistantship in the fellow’s home department, a tuition waiver, and $2,500 for conference travel or other academic expenses. In addition, the fellows enjoy networking and professional development opportunities and are paired with a faculty mentor.

Vera was born in Puerto Rico and moved to Miami with her family when she was 11. She earned her bachelor’s degree in theater from Florida International University in Miami and her first master’s degree in mass communications from the University of Florida in Gainesville. Vera returned to academia in 2017 and recently earned her second master’s degree from UT. She expects to spend the next three years working on her doctorate.

When I was a 19-year-old college student, I was driving to class when my passenger spotted a matted, emaciated, and flea-and-tick-ridden dog who was attempting to cross a busy intersection in Miami. I did not consider myself an animal lover at the time but ended up taking the dog home with me,” she said. “Initially, the little dog feared most humans but trusted me. As she captured my heart, I realized that she experienced joy, fear, and pain.”

That dog was a catalyst in Vera’s life, sending her down her current career path.

“I pursued a master’s degree in mass communications with an emphasis in public relations with the intention of using that knowledge to help animal protection organizations construct the clearest, most mainstream-friendly arguments to help improve the lives of animals used for companionship, food, and entertainment in our society,” she said.

After earning her first master’s degree, she got an internship that led to a job as a media relations specialist with the Humane Society of the United States in Washington, DC.

“My subject area focus was animal fighting, but I also served as Spanish-language spokesperson for the organization on occasion,” she said. “That job taught me that to help create the sort of change that I hope to see in the world. I needed a deeper understanding of the structural barriers that influence the way humans think, feel, and behave.”

Vera went on to work in various communications jobs in California and Oregon before becoming an environmental health educator in Washington County, Oregon.

“My career took an unexpected but valuable shift into public health,” she said. “I spent a large portion of my time working on food safety education and outreach to Latinx restaurant owners and workers to improve sanitation scores.”

When her husband took a job in Tennessee, Vera decided to pursue a doctorate in sociology. She aspires to work in academia. Her interests include animals and society, collective behavior and social movements, and the sociology of emotions.

“My passion is social justice. To be able to contribute to alleviating or solving a problem, I have to understand it on a deep level,” she said. “This fellowship provides me with the opportunity to be more deeply immersed in the sociological literature and have access to cutting-edge field research, which I look forward to sharing with future students.

“I am looking forward to working along Dr. Stephanie Bohon, whose expertise in migration will be instrumental to my future research.”

Vera said the fellowship also provides some personal and financial breathing room.

“As my husband and I both have student loan debt and we have our son in day care, my personal schedule and budget are both very tight,” she said. “This fellowship provides me with additional time per week to devote to my research. Additionally, it gives me access to professional development opportunities like conferences, workshops, and books that were not within reach before receiving this generous award.”