Shelby Ward stands in front of a window facing the Drillfield. She looks out at the vast Virginia Tech student population and smiles quietly to herself. As undergraduates stream past her view, she knows many of them are just trying to get to class on time, but others are asking themselves, “What’s next after graduation?”

And this question, in its few simple words, is a complex mystery for many, filled with hopes and anxieties, but she may have an answer for both herself and others. Ward, who has three degrees from Virginia Tech, including a recent doctorate from the Alliance for Social, Political, Ethical, and Cultural Thought — better known as ASPECT — is using the question of future careers for undergraduates as a project topic for her Emerging Voices Fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies.

Matched with the University of Texas at Austin, Ward works remotely to create an undergraduate conference for its College of Liberal Arts.

“I originally thought they wanted the fellow to teach career-building classes to help humanities and social science students take what they’ve learned, and then communicate that, either in development of graduate school or a career field,” she said.

But the interview with the university took an unexpected turn. After preparing to discuss teaching ideas, the fellow’s committee told Ward they were interested in other ideas for projects as well. 

“I had prepared to discuss what I would have done in the classes, but undergraduate research is something I’m passionate about and have been involved with in the past,” she said. So, she found herself talking about organizing a potential undergraduate research conference.

While working on her master’s in English, Ward was a graduate assistant for the former Center for 21st Century Studies at Virginia Tech, and said she served as the point person for its undergraduate research and study abroad components. She would help students develop and submit research proposals to conferences such as the Virginia Tech Undergraduate Research Symposium. 

The University of Texas at Austin sponsors liked the idea of hosting a student research conference and they signed on Ward as a fellow to plan and coordinate one for the spring 2022 semester.

The fellowship program financially supports 60 early career scholars the American Council of Learned Societies believes will help strengthen higher education and humanistic discipline with their voices, vision, and perspectives. This program, which began in 2019 in response to the economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, awards fellowships to those who are both outstanding scholars and effective communicators to diverse audiences inside and outside the classroom.

Ward applied for the award after being nominated by François Debrix, director of ASPECT and a political science professor, and recommended by Laura Belmonte, dean of the Virginia Tech College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences.

“We believed Dr. Ward would be a great fit for this program,” Debrix said. “Her research interests position her to be a positive force in helping others realize their potential, which will give her deeper breadth in her own research.”

Ward made the fellowship short list and interviewed with the University of Texas at Austin, which is a member of the council’s Research University Consortium. 

“The interviewers were excited about the mini conference and the fact that it would be doable within a year’s cohort,” she said. “But they were also really interested in my research and the work I’ve done that connects political science with international studies, cultural studies, and the humanities.”

Currently, Ward is an instructor in the Virginia Tech Department of Political Science, and her interdisciplinary research looks at the effects of colonialism, imperialism, and slavery on the world today. 

“I’m interested in how we can use culture, whether that’s movies or tourism, as a way to understand our political histories,” she said.

And although political histories may seem unrelated to undergraduate career studies, Ward says, she finds her diverse interests to be akin to a puzzle. Each connects to others, and for her, that complexity is why she defines herself as a transdisciplinary scholar.

“The reason ASPECT interested me was because of the intersections between the humanities and political science and international studies,” she said. “They connect on a theoretical level, and much of the theory I studied during my English undergraduate and master’s courses are some basics that we also learn in ASPECT. So, for me, it made sense to transition between these seemingly different fields. It was just understanding where the connections are theoretically.” 

Ward looks forward to helping undergraduates make similar connections within their own research. Presenting at an undergraduate research conference is just the beginning.

Written by Leslie King