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Spotlight on Ashley Agbasoga: PhD Candidate in Anthropology and Tepoztlán Institute Fellow.

Modified: March 9, 2016
Ashley Agbasoga

For as long as she can remember, Ashley Agbasoga has been interested in anthropology. “I think since I was young, my soul has told me to do something like anthropology. “ Ashley said, “I feel the need to interrogate structures that are in place now, even if those inquiries are difficult to handle."

Despite ultimately following through on her childhood instincts, her trajectory to her present research was not straightforward. Growing up, Ashley’s family and teachers encouraged her to pursue a “hard science,” so she spent time at the University of Texas Biomedical Engineering Department while she was in high school. From there, she attended Columbia University as a biomedical engineering major for her freshman year of college. She quickly realized that this wasn’t the right track for her, so she returned to her hometown of Austin, Texas. The next year, she re-enrolled in college, but with a new direction: majoring in anthropology at Brooklyn College, a senior college in the City University of New York system.

Spending time in Turkey during her junior year of college helped Ashley solidify her interest in anthropology and form her research path. “I realized I was fascinated by different diasporas and learning how people piece together their own identities and understanding of themselves; I then decided to work with the African Diaspora.”

Today, Ashley is a first year PhD student in the Anthropology program at Northwestern. She was attracted to Northwestern for a number of reasons; although the weather was not one of them. “It’s just so cold!” Ashley laughs, “I’m a Texas girl!” 

The allure of the Herskovits Library, the largest Africana library in the country, and the overall vibe of the anthropology program outweighed any of Ashley’s Chicago-winter-based doubts and sealed the deal. 

“Northwestern anthropology is a four-field department.” She explains, “One of the highlights of the program is that you are required to take classes in all four fields: Cultural Anthropology, Linguistic Anthropology, Archaeology and Biological Anthropology. You gain multiple perspectives and this strengthens your work.

Her research examines the African diaspora; in particular, the connection of race and health in Afro-Mexico in the Costa Chica Region. “The Costa Chica region is mainly rural, and states like Guerrero were highly affected by neoliberal policies that were passed in the 1990s, such as NAFTA. I look at the changing political economies of that particular region: how it affects migration and identity.”

Additionally, she studies the state’s role in limiting health care access in these communities. “I look at what it means to identify as black in Mexico. How does identifying with African ancestry redefine concepts of citizenship in Mexico? And what are the implications for these communities who identify as such for accessing state services, such as health care and education?”

Ashley is the recipient of the Tepoztlán-Northwestern Graduate Fellowship, which is rewarded to one PhD student every two years. The recipient receives a stipend and attends the Tepoztlán Institute conference in Mexico City that takes place in July. As a component of the Fellowship, Ashley works as the graduate fellow to the conference directors and assists with planning the conference. This year’s conference theme is “Racist Violence, from the Colonial Past to the Urgent Present.” 

“I find it a great opportunity to meet scholars that I normally wouldn’t be able to and to further my research in Mexico,” Ashley says. “ You’re reading all of the papers of the people you’re going to be with before you get there, so it’s not someone standing on a soapbox and preaching. An actual discussion is being held. I learn best through discussion, not through lecture.”

In her spare time, Ashley is an avid cook. Her favorite past time is hosting dinner parties and bringing joy to her friends and family through food. She eventually would like to go into academia but is also interested in working for an organization immediately after college that works with communities abroad. Wherever she decides to go, she knows that a lot can change in a few years. “I wanted to be a biomedical engineer six years ago, so we’ll see where life takes me in seven years.”