If good mentors help point you in the right direction, great mentors walk the path with you – and work with you to pursue research that could shed light on a global crisis.

At least, such has been Zoe Silverman’s experience at the University of Richmond. 

Silverman, ’10, has spent much of the last year working with leadership studies assistant professor Karen Zivi to conduct research on the AIDS crisis in South Africa – the nation plagued by the highest number of HIV and AIDS cases in the world.

Their research has covered topics ranging from gender issues such as motherhood and women’s rights to masculinity, rape, and public policy.

“More than half the affected population is women.” Silverman said. “I knew I wanted to research something I felt passionate about, and this is something that really struck me – the violence against women, the lack of health care, and the treatment of HIV-positive rape victims and mothers.” 

Silverman, a double major in leadership studies and sociology, who says she is “constantly looking through a gender lens in sociology,” focused on issues of gender while Zivi, a political scientist whose work on the topic has appeared in several journals, focused more on issues of human rights and public policy. A common theme in their research was examining effective strategies and programs that empower women to be citizen leaders and assume leadership roles.

“In one sense it was looking at two sides of the same coin,” Silverman said.

“It’s really hard to address and separate the problem of AIDS in South Africa from rights and violence against women, so we looked at it as both a socio-cultural and socioeconomic issue,” Zivi said. “The economic vulnerability of women contributes so much to the crisis that it can’t just be treated as a public health problem.”

Some of the research is being incorporated into a book Zivi is writing on the relationship between human rights and democracy titled "Making Rights Claims."

Silverman says she has always been passionate about issues of social justice and had a keen interest in Africa – her father taught at a university in Senegal, which is where decided to study abroad, and she has taken several classes on Africa in multiple academic disciplines including anthropology and sociology. But in Zivi she found a mentor who shared her passion and helped her find a practical way to combine the two.

Together they applied for a research grant last spring from the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement. As fate would have it, Silverman was on a plane taxiing down the runway for a return trip to Senegal during spring break of her junior year when she got a call saying they had been awarded the grant.

It allowed them to look at what is being done on both an international scale as well as at the grassroots level to address the epidemic. Silverman studied three organizations in South Africa working to address the problem.

“Zoe got to study leadership in action,” Zivi said. “Through this research she was really able to get a good idea of what it means to be a citizen leader.”

Silverman decided to continue her research this semester by doing an independent study with Zivi that will culminate in a senior thesis she asked to do on rape, violence, and masculinity in South Africa.

“My friends find it a little surprising that I decided to voluntarily do a thesis, but I wanted a concrete piece of writing that would reflect my growth as a student and bring together my entire academic experience in sociology and leadership studies,” Silverman said. “It definitely has. And I couldn’t have asked for a better mentor along the way.”