Jauhara Ferguson is a fourth-year sociology Ph.D. student and Graduate Student Ambassador at Rice. Originally from Atlanta, Jauhara attended Spelman College for her undergraduate degree, where she majored in international studies with a religious studies minor. She always knew she was interested in social sciences and interdisciplinary fields, but did not know exactly what she wanted to do after graduation. That changed during her sophomore year of college when she was accepted to a fellowship program focused on international studies research which she found inspiring and exciting, with the potential to make big changes in the wellbeing of people around the world - and ultimately led her to pursue a Ph.D.
Jauhara explains that when investigating a social issue in her research, finding the “why” is her critical mission. “An issue is not something that just exists without cause, but has a reason behind it, a context, and it is something that can be unfolded and solved.”
“In sociology, there is potential for change to happen,” she notes. “When you are exploring different social phenomena and issues and problems, it can be challenging at times to dig up all these issues, but I am interrogating these things with the potential for solutions down the line.”
Jauhara’s research focuses on relationships between religion, race, immigration, and national identity. More specifically, some of her recent work examines different perspectives of an American identity among US-based Black Muslims, investigating how US-born Black Muslims and immigrated Black Muslins hold different views about race, religion, and what it is to be an American.
The road to graduate school
After her research fellowship, Jauhara took a gap year, looking into graduate degrees and planning her path to a Ph.D. program. Jauhara was drawn to the Ph.D. route not only because of research but also because of the financial model. Ph.D. programs in the U.S. typically fund their students with fellowships and stipends and provide a tuition waiver, eliminating the need to take out student loans and providing financial security. Jauhara focused on programs that were financially supportive.
“The financial model for the Ph.D. program ensured I did not have to worry about the future while doing something I love,” she said.
Additionally, Jauhara knew she was interested in working in an academic environment, and she knew a Ph.D. program would set her up for that kind of career.
Jauhara knew of Rice University when she was an undergrad, and when Rice came up during her search for grad schools she added Rice to her list, but she admittedly didn’t prioritize the school as a top pick for her. That changed when she was flown out for her program’s Prospective Student Weekend, which was a very positive experience and drew her to Rice. [Read more about making visiting weekends work for you!]
Life at Rice
“The transition to Rice was challenging at first,” she said. “I was leaving my community context and safe space and moving into a new environment where I had to figure things out on my own. It hit me that I’m going to be here for 5, maybe 6, years; I need to learn how to be myself and live my life in this new context.”
Jauhara found grad student life different from undergrad life because you do not have the same social network as you used to and you’re also adjusting to a different kind of relationship with faculty. “You are navigating how to be a student but also a professional, which is a weird balance,” she added. “Moving forward, being honest with myself, and being open to asking questions and asking for help when I needed it helped me see that I can navigate this.” [Read more about what to expect during year one of grad school, and Rice resources to support you on your academic journey!]
Life in Houston
Adjusting to life in sprawling, spread-out Houston was also challenging at first. “In Houston, it can feel like everything is far apart,” she said. “But the connections I made with people helped me overcome that, building my community both at Rice but also outside of Rice, and that is something that came over time.”
Jauhara’s research also helped her build a community in Houston. “Sociology forced me to connect with people outside of my grad program. For my research projects, I was going to different mosques and businesses and religious groups and community centers. That helped me personally.” As a Black Muslim woman, Jauhara’s research connects her with people on both a professional and personal level given that her research focuses on race, religion, and identity, particulalry among Black Muslims. “Being a Black Muslim woman, I’m doing research but I am also finding new community spaces for myself. I have my analytical view and focus on things from my sociological perspective, but it is also me reflecting on my personal experience.”
Jauhara highlights that Houston has some really cool things to check out: great parks, one of the best food scenes in the country with great and diverse food, and fun festivals. [Read more about settling into life in Houston. Pro tip: Jauhara’s favorite spot to eat in Houston is a food truck called Taco Fuego! Did you know Houston has a huge - and delicious - food truck scene? Read about more great food trucks in the city here.]
Advice for Prospective Students
When selecting a grad program, Jauhara’s advice to students is to think about where they’d be happiest. “This is a place that you’re potentially going to be at for some time,” she said. “How can this environment develop you on a holistic level? What networks are you going to be connected to? How is Rice going to aid in building new networks and connections?” She also advises thinking about your cohort as your colleagues; your classmates in grad school may be so much more than classmates, they may play a role in your future and your career as well. Jauhara also advises that prospective students do not overlook social and emotional aspects of their life. She stresses that it is important to have a balanced life and to be supported holistically. “At Rice I’ve been supported very well in that way,” she said.
The social side of grad school is incredibly important, and where you live can be a big part of how social you are, Jauhara notes. “Students should think about how where they are also influences their social life,” she said. Houston is a big city - there are a lot of different neighborhoods and modes of transportation. Will you need a car? What will your commute be like? These are all important questions to ask.
Preparing for Grad School
To best prepare for graduate school and the application process, make sure to give yourself time. “Find time to sit with applications - do not rush through things,” she said. Jauhara took a gap year after college, which gave her time to prepare for the GRE and really sit with her applications and reach out for help when she needed. “It is always important to ask questions about the grad school application process specifically,” she said. “I thought I had to do or pay for things through the application process but there were actually a lot of waivers or exemptions. The application process can feel so daunting but there are ways that can make your life so much easier if you are open to asking questions and not just assuming things.” [Read more about beginning the grad application process.]
The summer before her time at Rice started, Jauhara says she wished she had relaxed a little bit more! “Things are going to play out the way they’re going to happen,” she explains. “There is a lot of anxiety around grad school, and the reality is that a lot of that can be eliminated because once grad school starts, you will have lots of other considerations and anxieties, so give yourself a bit of a break before the program.” [Read more on preparing for your first year of grad school.]
Looking Forward to the Coming Year
In the coming school year, Jauhara is looking forward to continuing to grow and progress through the program, especially after the stresses of the Covid-19 pandemic. “It was very stressful to defend a thesis during a pandemic, but I think now having that experience...I still feel some anxiety but feel a lot better knowing I did this thing through crazy circumstances. Seeing what we were all really capable of doing and coming out on the other end despite all of the challenges is helpful in having the motivation and drive to push through.”
About the author: Originally from Massachusetts, Emily Elia is a fourth-year Ph.D. student in political science. She graduated from the University of Alabama in 2018 and currently studies comparative politics with a focus on Latin America.