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Associate Dean, Graduate Students Honored at International Women’s Day Celebration

Assata Zerai, Associate Dean, Graduate CollegeAssociate Dean of the Graduate College, Assata Zerai, was recognized at the university’s International Women’s Day Celebration on March 8 in the Illini Union. This annual celebration, in conjunction with International Women’s Day celebrations all over the globe, honors local efforts in our campus-community to improve the lives of women around the world. The event was hosted by the Women’s Resource Center and campus partners. The honorees this year represented a wide-range of achievements within the fields of education, health care, policy, history, and social work.

In addition to her position at the Graduate College, Zerai currently holds positions as Director of the Center for African Studies, and Associate Professor of Sociology. Zerai’s research frameworks (theory and methodology) build from Black feminist thought, intersectionality, and African and Africana feminisms, and her interests have included maternal and child health, health activism, and safe water and sanitation in Africa and the African Diaspora, and in U.S. populations, as well as diversity and inclusiveness in U.S. Protestant congregations, and making the work of indigenous and marginalized scholars and activists more accessible. 

Among those honored this year were several graduate students from across campus. You can read about their extraordinary backgrounds and research in their bios below.

Sarah Blackstone, Doctoral Student, Community Health

Sarah Blackstone is a PhD student in Community Health. Her interests are in dissemination and implementation science, specifically designing and implementing effective and sustainable interventions targeting maternal and child health, sexual and reproductive health, and chronic diseases in low-resource settings. Her current work takes place in Ghana and Nigeria. Sarah has a Master’s of Public Health from Northern Illinois University with an emphasis in Health Promotion. She completed an internship with a branch of the CDC’s Pioneering Healthier Communities focusing on community outreach with regard to nutrition and physical activity education. Sarah has been awarded the Roger Morse Most Outstanding Graduate Student Award and the William H. Cresswell Jr. Graduate Student Award.

Vernita Pearl Fort, Doctoral Student, Institute of Communications Research 

Vernita Pearl Fort is a Retired U.S. Diplomat and PhD Student within the The Music and Human Rights Project in the Institute of Communications Research at the University of Illinois. Vernita entered her doctoral program after completing a diplomatic career with the United States Agency for International Development, United States Department of State. She worked in 40 countries across Africa, the Middle East, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean and managed some of the world’s largest development portfolios. She holds a Master of Science degree from Yale University in evolutionary biology and tropical ecology and a B.S. from the University of California, Berkeley in natural resource systems management. 

Tumani Malinga, Doctoral Student, School of Social Work 

Tumani Malinga is a PhD student at the School of Social Work, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She received her Master in Social Work (MSW) from the University of Utah, Salt Lake City. Her research interests include low income women, gender issues, and mental health, as well as examining racial and ethnic health disparities on maternal health settings. Her previous research was on Capacity Building for HIV/STD Prevention Research on Batswana Adolescents. She has also participated on research examining the role of social workers in community development.   During her practice years, she worked with low income women in Botswana were she did needs assessment and advocated for rights and needs of women.  It was on this premise that she developed interest in doing research focusing on the life course experiences of low income women to better understand their problems and pathways associated with threats to economic, physical, and psychosocial well-being, and better inform and strengthen the preventive aspect of social work in Botswana.

Elizabeth Sloffer, Doctoral Student, Food Science and Human Nutrition

Elizabeth is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition. Her concentration is food science, and she has also completed the Gender Relations & International Development (GRID) Minor though WGGP. Elizabeth is a U.S. Borlaug Fellow in Global Food Security and is a recipient of the Barbara A. Yates Award for International Research sponsored by WGGP. Her dissertation focuses on gender, nutrition, and agricultural linkages in rural Honduras. She is specifically interested in the food utilization dimension of food insecurity and ways that women perform the role of food utilizer for their families and communities. Her research promises to develop better indicators of adequate food utilization and to improve the quality of agricultural extension programs for women.