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Syracuse University Doctoral Alumna Honored with Top Dissertation Prize in National Competition
Kishauna Soljour ’13, G’19 came to Syracuse University with a passion for storytelling. At first, she thought it would lead to a career in journalism. She never dreamed her academic journey would culminate in a doctoral dissertation that has brought her and Syracuse University national recognition. Soljour received her Ph.D. in May 2019 and last month accepted the nation’s most prestigious honor for doctoral dissertations: The Council of Graduate Schools/ProQuest Distinguished Dissertation Award in Humanities and Fine Arts. With this distinction, she is the first Syracuse University recipient of the award.
Each year, the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) selects two winners from applicants across the nation; the other recent winner completed his Ph.D. in neuroscience at the University of Minnesota–Twin Cities. Bestowed annually since 1982, the award recognizes recent doctoral recipients who have already made unusually significant and original contributions to their fields.
The CGS “is the only national organization dedicated solely to the advancement of graduate education and research for doctoral programs,” notes Peter Vanable, dean of the Graduate School and University associate provost for graduate studies. “Kishauna’s selection for the award is an extraordinary accomplishment, as she was the single award recipient this year for all of the humanities, competing with many top nominees at other universities.”
This is not the first time Soljour has distinguished herself among her peers and colleagues. Last year, she became the first black woman to receive her Ph.D. in history from the Maxwell School. Her research also won the all-University doctoral prize.
While Soljour has forged new pathways and broken ground for black women and underrepresented groups, she has found her own inspiration in the study of history. Her dissertation, “Beyond the Banlieue: French Postcolonial Migration & the Politics of a Sub-Saharan Identity,” redefined the way historians view the contributions of African migrants to French culture and society over the past half century.
“Through my research, I am able to tell stories that need to be told,” Soljour says. “These are the stories of what everyday people are able to accomplish in the face of extreme inequality and racism. Though many accounts have cast African migrants in a negative light—invisible, resentful, poor, rebellious—the fact is that they are entrepreneurs, activists, artists, authors and teachers who have left a rich legacy and contributed to contemporary French society in spite of shortcomings in state policy toward immigration and acculturation.” Soljour says she sees the national award as recognition of those contributions and their previously untold stories.
Soljour has dedicated her academic career and her personal life to empowering others to have a voice in effecting change in their communities. As an undergraduate in the Renée Crown University Honors Program, concentrating in television, radio and film (Newhouse), African American studies (Arts and Sciences) and strategic management (Whitman), she was active with the WellsLink Leadership program in the Office of Multicultural Affairs and served as president of the university chapter of the NAACP. In deciding where to go to graduate school, she was most impressed by Syracuse professors and her advisor Jeffrey Gonda, who helped her map out a five-year plan, respectful of her goals to connect her research interest in migrant populations to real-life experiences and community impact. Her work with the “Paris Noir” study-abroad program was transformative in focusing her dissertation on Afropeans.
Soljour is now combining her personal, academic and career passions in her work for W!se, a national educational nonprofit based in New York City dedicated to helping young people get ready for college and careers. “I am working with students, many of whom are migrants who face many obstacles and who are grappling with issues in their lives and communities,” she says. “They are learning how to do primary and secondary research to develop solutions. Through their work, they are positioned to compete for college scholarships. Their stories—and the opportunity to tell them—provide them with the tools for more promising futures.”
On her website, Soljour describes her approach toward work, service, life and teaching, all dedicated to the “mission of public humanities” by using her research and teaching experience to facilitate connections between academia and public service and provide opportunities for youth, immigrants and marginalized groups: “My understanding of historical study is a process through which we can engage in new conversations with the ‘past’ and the ‘present.’ My work as a scholar is to facilitate these critical conversations.”