By Abrianna Morales

Outstanding Research Story Award.
Undergraduate Research Opportunities Conference, 2023

Some things in life always leave you wondering. Maybe it’s the way you can never seem to remember where you put your car keys. Or how you always feel better when the sun comes out. Maybe it’s something that happened—or almost happened—to you. What if you had decided to call out sick the day you were going to meet the love of your life? What if, you think, as you pass a bad accident on the freeway, you hadn’t spent that extra ten minutes searching for your car keys? Could that have been you?

There’s a joke among some scientists that all research is actually ‘me-search,’ and that the questions we ask are less about what we want to know about the world and more about what we want to know about ourselves. In other words, research is rigorous wondering. Research allows us to explore our own faulty memories, the things that bring us joy, and the things we have, or almost have, experienced; the things we wish to understand.

I was sexually assaulted in my sophomore year of high school—just after I turned fifteen—by a teacher of mine. Sexual victimization is one of those things that tends to leave you wondering. It’s the sort of experience that demands to be understood—the sort of thing that raises a lot of questions. When I came forward in late 2016, I remember feeling incredibly isolated. I had lost nearly every friend that I’d had. People spoke about me and what had happened to me as I passed them in hallways. In what felt like a matter of minutes, I had become “that girl.” I wondered, then, what I had done to deserve all this ostracism and why people had such a hard time believing victims of sexual violence. I wondered, again, after my first interactions with the criminal justice system, why there seemed to be so few opportunities for victims’ voices to be heard. I wondered, at many points, whether anything could have been done to prevent what had happened to me, in the first place. I wondered if anyone else felt the way I did. Most of all, I wondered if there was anything I could do to ensure no one else had to feel that way, ever again.

The decision to become a victim advocate, then, felt very simple. It felt like the answer to all my questions. I decided to create Sexual Assault Youth Support Network (SAYSN), an organization devoted to supporting, empowering, and connecting young survivors and those that support them, in 2017. At first, it was a small project born of a desire to show other young victims that they weren’t alone—to assuage their wonderings about whether others had been through what they had and whether it was possible to move on. It eventually became a way for me to assuage my own wonderings about whether it was possible for me to ‘fill the space’ left behind by my own victimization, or whether I could take something tragic and make it into something meaningful.

Being the founder of SAYSN has given me numerous opportunities to share my story, and work as a community organizer and legislative advocate in service of sexual violence victims. But it wasn’t until I began studying at the University of New Mexico (UNM) that I realized that victim advocacy also has a place within the academy. My first course in Sociological Research Methods introduced me to the notion that research could be an act of resistance—a tool for progress and change—and that the simple act of asking questions can be a powerful one. It wasn’t until I began conducting my own research that I fully understood that the questions I had about my own victimization could be asked, and answered, in a way that could help others.

In 2020, I had the chance to work with a great team of mentors and graduate students from UNM to study New Mexicans’ experiences of resilience in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. This project was my first research experience as an undergraduate student and taught me so much about the power of storytelling in times of crisis. Even more, it showed me how important it is for research to be done in collaboration with the communities it examines. In addition to my work studying resilience, UNM’s McNair Scholars Program gave me the opportunity to work with faculty mentors to conduct my own research on the impacts of COVID-19 on the courts and stakeholders’ experiences of procedural justice. With the support of Dr. Jaymes Fairfax-Columbo and Dr. Lisa Broidy, I have had the chance to explore the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on victims’ experiences of procedural justice in the criminal legal system and am working to develop the findings of that project into policy and practice recommendations for criminal justice professionals. As an ASSURE fellow and student in the Psychology Honors Program, I’ve begun working with Dr. David Witherington on my current research project, “Children’s Identification and Interpretation of Appropriate and Inappropriate Adult-Child Interactions,” to examine children’s abilities to identify and respond to the grooming behaviors that often precede sexual abuse. Done in partnership with parents/guardians and other stakeholders, we aim to use the findings of our research to develop evidence-based, community-informed child sexual abuse prevention education materials for children and families in New Mexico.

My work as a researcher is an extension of the advocacy work that I started years ago. It begins and ends with the wondering sparked by my own victimization, and it’s taught me quite a bit about myself and the world around me. My research on resilience during COVID-19 taught me a lot about the power of community and storytelling in times of hardship. My research on the impact of the pandemic on victims’ experiences of procedural justice stems from the questions I had about my own experience navigating the legal system as a victim of crime. My research on children’s abilities to detect grooming stems from the questions I had about whether what happened to me could have been prevented. At the core of all my projects, though, is a desire—through my questions and rigorous wondering—to advocate for others. And above all, my research story is ultimately just a part of my story, of my own path to healing, to helping, to putting my own wonders to rest.