By Anna Allen, '16

Most students take graduate-level courses after they complete their undergraduate degree. However, senior Alivia Pinnix, '15, decided to get a head start when she participated in the Ralph Bunche Political Science Institute. Named after the 1950 Nobel Peace Prize winner and former president of the American Political Science Association (APSA), the program aims to encourage college students to pursue their interests in political science.

Held at Duke University, 12 students from across the United States came together to study political science for five weeks during the summer. The students were required to write a 30-page research paper about a political science topic of their choosing, while taking such courses as race in American politics. “It was very challenging,” says Pinnix. “The atmosphere was very much ‘break you down in order to build you up,’ something that took some getting used to on my part.”

Despite the challenging atmosphere, Pinnix quickly identified a topic to investigate. “I chose to discuss the disparities in juvenile justice, specifically regarding black males in the juvenile justice system. I examined the different factors in their lives that led them to that path,” says Pinnix.

In her paper, Pinnix focused on indicators that make a person more susceptible to landing in the juvenile justice system. “Black males are disproportionally represented, but I wanted to know the back-story to that,” she says. “I wanted to know what families these kids were coming from; what support systems they had; their educational backgrounds, or lack thereof; and any different factors, such as policing factors, that played into why these kids were streaming into the system.”

Attempting to research and answer these questions was no small task. “I ran into trouble interpreting perspectives from officers and law enforcement,” says Pinnix. “It was difficult for even people within the police force to pinpoint where any bias might come from or why it’s even present in the first place.”

Through her work, Pinnix hopes to add to the dialogue about improving justice in a system under scrutiny. As Pinnix learned at the institute, extensive research like her own is crucial, as well as the confidence to translate that research into relatable language.

These skills will serve Pinnix well as she considers a master’s degree in social work or counseling and a career in the juvenile justice field.

But Pinnix says the most important thing she learned from her summer experience was to have more faith in her own abilities. “I struggled with believing I could succeed and not feeling discouraged,” she says. “Pulling myself out of the mindset of ‘no one thinks you can do it’ or ‘I can’t do this,’ was key for me.”

It’s something Pinnix hopes to share as she moves toward a career working with young people. “[I want to tell them,] go after opportunities, even if you’re a little wary of them in the beginning, go anyway, just so you can prove to yourself that you can do it,” she says with a smile.