Sociology professor enjoys teaching while researching

Dr. Alisa Garni, associate professor of sociology, anthropology and social work has traveled to places such as El Salvador to enhance her research on immigration. (Photo Courtesy of Dr. Alisa Garni)

For K-State’s Alisa Garni, associate professor of sociology, anthropology and social work, her scariest experience was in El Salvador while working in a rural community as she pursued her master’s degree. Where she lived, buses were the only practical way to get to the cities to reach services like mail.

“I had planned to get up this one morning to go to the city, and I got up and I opened the newspaper,” Garni said. “The night before, five buses on all five roads connecting this little town to major cities had been burned, completely destroyed.”

Garni said the buses were pulled over and robbed. In El Salvador, it is common for buses to be stopped by gangs in remote areas, where the passengers are then ordered to turn over all of their money and valuables. Sometimes, if the gangs are not satisfied by the amount they receive, they will burn the bus, leaving the passengers stranded, which is what Garni said happened that day. In some cases, though, the passengers are not allowed to leave the buses, and burn with them.

Garni said reading the newspaper that day was probably the scariest day for her, knowing that she could have been on one of those buses.

“That’s what people say, is that there’s no such thing as common sense because do you take the first bus of the day, the middle bus, the last bus?” Garni said. “But the thing is it can happen any time so there’s no way to avoid it. A lot of Salvadorans will say, ‘It’s not if, it’s when.’ It’s terrifying.”

Garni said she did the work because she loves the people in Central America.

“I’ve always felt so at home,” Garni said. “People are so welcoming and so kind and so compassionate, which makes the violence all the more devastating. So it breaks my heart that people are living through this. I think that question has driven all of my research and everything I’ve done is, ‘How can this happen?'”

Garni said that, for her, this is what social science is all about.

“If we can understand how it is that’s happening and why it’s happening, maybe we have a better chance of making effective change,” Garni said.

Garni studies migration patterns and the social issues that cause people to migrate to the U.S. In addition to El Salvador, Garni’s studies have taken her Guatemala and Nicaragua, as well as other countries throughout South America. She also teaches sociology classes including international and social development and international migration.

Garni’s interest in studying abroad began in high school, when she was studying Spanish. A friend told her about a study abroad program, and Garni decided that day she was interested. Since then, Garni has studied internationally many times.

“When I went to college, I looked for a college that had a really good study abroad program and spent my junior year abroad in Costa Rica,” Garni said.

The college Garni picked was Santa Clara University in Santa Clara, California. Through the university’s law program, she worked for a public interest law center and with refugees from Central America, including people from Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador.

Garni said the stories she heard made her want to learn more, ultimately leading her to master’s degree in Latin American studies at the University of California at San Diego.

“I thought ‘I just need to know more, I need to learn more,'” Garni said. “So I went into a master’s degree program at UC San Diego and got a grant and went all the way down through the isthmus doing field work.”

Garni said she decided to attain her doctorate degree during her work for her master’s degree. By that point, Garni said she already had learned she enjoyed doing research. While working toward her master’s, she was a teaching assistant, which required her to teach what were essentially recitation sessions.

“I would get to work with three sessions of 25-30 students each, so smaller classes, and I realized that I just loved it,” Garni said. “So I thought, ‘Well, if I love the research and I love the teaching, well then that probably means I should go on for a Ph.D.'”

Levi Gerson, sophomore in life sciences and pre-physical therapy, took the international and social development course taught by Garni. Though the course is a 500-level one, Gersen said Garni’s approach to the class made it easier. For instance, the course required a number of difficult projects and papers, all of which Garni made seem more doable.

“She explained the material in such a way and made those crazy assignments seem like they were something that you should want to do,” Gerson said.

Despite her role as a teacher, Garni said she still gets out and does research, including a project she is working on now with undergraduate research assistants, one of whom is Marcus Dominguez, junior in sociology.

Dominguez, who has worked with Garni for three years, said he decided to work with her because he liked the research she had done in the past. One project Garni and Dominguez have been working on is studying immigration patterns as they pertain to agriculture.

“The project we’ve been working on is how the changing agricultural patterns have affected immigration in rural Kansas,” Dominguez said.

Specifically, they are looking at how immigration policies in states like Arizona and Alabama could influence Kansas if implemented here.

“We’re finding out that more forms of agriculture in Kansas are being dependent on immigrant labor,” Dominguez said. “So if legislation were to be passed in Kansas, how would that effect the agricultural production and the communities that some of these immigrants have started to live in.”

Dominguez said his favorite part about working with Garni has been how she helped him throughout the process, and has been a great mentor for him.

“The best part about Dr. Garni is how excited and emotional she gets about doing her research and how passionate she is about it,” Dominguez said.

Shelton Burch
Shelton grew up in the desert southwest. A native of Lancaster, California, he mostly grew up in south Phoenix, Arizona; Austin, Texas; and Colorado Springs, Colorado before moving to Kansas and graduating from Junction City High School. He started working as a news writer for the Collegian in 2009 before taking a three-year break from college. He returned to K-State in 2013 and has since worked for the news desk, feature desk, as a copy editor and now as a sports writer. He enjoys tap dancing, writing anything possible, reading court opinions and watching Arizona Coyotes hockey.