For Joyce Bennett, ’07, a summer spent working at the City of Richmond's Hispanic Liaison Office developed into a senior thesis at Richmond, and started her down a path to an anthropology doctorate at Tulane University.

Bennett is now working on her dissertation, which focuses on how migration in Guatemala affects language use, but back in 2005 she had just received a Burhans Civic Fellowship from the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement, which funded her 10-week internship.

Bennett says that as soon as she started at the liaison office, she “was hooked.” She assisted members of the Latino community with translation, completing research and filling out applications.

“One day a group of men came in and only one of them spoke Spanish,” Bennett said. “My co-worker told me they were Mixtec speakers. I asked my boss for more information, and she told me about this Mixtec women’s weaving group that had formed.”

The Mixtec are a people native to the Mexican states of Oaxaca, Guerrero and Puebla in a region known as La Mixteca. Richmond has a sizable Mixtec population.

Intrigued, Bennett got in touch with the founders and started attending the weekly meetings. The group often hosted educational lecturers during their meetings, and Bennett often volunteered to watch the children, giving the women time to listen and focus on their weaving projects.

“I have always been interested in using what I learn in school for greater good, which is why I started volunteering in the Latino community,” she said. “I realized I could put my Spanish to work and also help benefit those in need.”

Her senior year, Bennett, an American studies major, took a seminar that required her to write a thesis. She focused on the cultural and economic experiences of Mixtecan women living in Richmond.

“My thesis, working with the Mixtec women's group in Richmond, came from two of my passions: working in the Latino community and making scholarship useful to the people it's about, especially if that involves addressing some of the issues faced in American society today,” Bennett said.

Bennett was particularly interested in the Mixtecan women’s plight because it allowed her to bring together her background studies in gender and indigenous communities. She was interested in how the group formed in the area, how it was operating and whether or not it was benefiting the women involved.

“My thesis ended up being about the disconnect that can occur between service providers, the founders of the group, community members and the Mixtec women and what that disconnect means in terms of the functionality and future for the group,” Bennett said.

Bennett’s thesis work instilled in her a genuine interest in indigenous populations and immigrants from Mexico and Central America, which she brought to her graduate research at Tulane University.

At Tulane Bennett’s focus has changed slightly, but is still closely tied to her work at Richmond. She now concentrates on cultural and sociolinguistic anthropology in Mesoamerica. For her dissertation Bennett traveled to highland Guatemala to examine migration and how it influences language use and revitalization.

“I'm still working with indigenous people from Mesoamerica and I'm still interested in migration. I am now focusing on how migration can result in continuing or revitalizing the home culture and language, which I also looked at under my thesis,” explained Bennett.

Bennett traveled to Guatemala for the first time as an undergraduate at Richmond, and she’s since returned twice to complete dissertation research with funds from a Foreign Language Area Studies Grant. She’s learned to speak Kaqchikel Maya fluently, and has also studied Yucatec and Nahuatl at Tulane.

Kaqchikel and Yucatec are both Mayan languages, while Nahuatl is an Aztecan language.

She presented and published a paper in Spanish, titled “Language and Gender in Kaqchikel and Spanish Radio Stations: Differences Between Men and Women’s Language in Kaqchikel and Spanish,” at the eighth annual Congress of Mayan Studies in Guatemala City.

In the future Bennett hopes to use her knowledge of indigenous cultures to teach or do non-profit or government work.

“Whatever I end up doing, my goal is to spread education and understanding between peoples from different cultures and places. I intend to make my education in anthropology useful and applicable to the world and the problems it faces.”