By Sarah Geegan, Kami L. Rice
Baishakhi Taylor and Darina Lepadatu became fast friends when their paths converged at the University of Kentucky nearly 10 years ago. The two women, from India and Romania respectively, were among the few international students in UK’s sociology Ph.D. program.
As Lepadatu notes, they went through the acculturation process together. They even have young daughters who are almost the same age. Both scholars have recently taken on roles at different universities, and they credit the preparation they received at UK for their success.
On first glance, Taylor’s new job doesn’t appear to be the obvious choice for a research-minded sociologist. But Taylor says her sociology background was key preparation for the position she acquired last year at Duke University.
As academic dean, she oversees the academic and intellectual progress of first and second-year students and serves all students in one of four neighborhoods into which entering students are grouped.
She currently advises 716 students and will continue until they declare majors. The role requires her to work one-on-one with students, faculty, parents and partners all across Duke’s campus. Taylor regularly meets with as many as 10 students a day.
"Working with students in this way is very fulfilling," Taylor said. “The first two years are a big landmark in students’ lives, [and] students want to get the best of the Duke experience.”
She credits her UK sociology background for her success in guiding the students. “Sociology as a discipline is so comprehensive,” she said.
Her expertise has allowed her to navigate the social dynamics of working with students. It has also prepared her to understand students' perspectives, including how various socio-economic factors impact them. Now, in addition to her academic dean role, she serves as director of Duke’s new Peer Advising Program and director of the Duke Engage Program in Calcutta, India.
For the past three summers, Taylor has earned grants, including a Fulbright grant and Duke Engage funds to travel to India, her native land. In most cases, she took students with her. Taylor has also taken elementary teachers and education students from the U.S. to India. After returning, they developed an elementary school global learning curriculum, which reflected what they observed in Indian schools.
While Taylor’s non-tenure track trajectory was an evolution rather than a plan from the beginning, she said that it was a good journey.
“I feel like I got the best of both worlds," Taylor said. "I am still in academia and still pursuing research, but I am a lot more grounded and not working only inside the scholarly bubble. I get to work with people and what better [work] is there than that for a sociologist?”
When Lepadatu learned that she will be promoted this fall from assistant professor to associate professor of sociology after five years at Kennesaw State University outside Atlanta, UK sociology Professor Thomas Janoski was the first person she called.
“Our relationship didn’t end with graduation,” she said of her UK mentor, whom she credits as the most influential person in her career. She continues to collaborate with him since defending her dissertation in 2007.
Lepadatu and Janoski have published one book together and are working on a second. Their current project involves research on the auto industry and the maturing of lean production, the Japanese management style that has become the industry’s dominant model. A National Science Foundation research grant has funded their study titled, “Lean Production in Japanese Transplants and American Auto Plants: Processes of Management Control and Worker Identity in Causing Stress.”
For the past two years, Lepadatu has also served as associate director of KSU’s Ph.D. program in international conflict management. It's the only program of its kind in the U.S. that focuses on international conflict management, thus prospective students apply from around the world. The 30 students in the first two cohorts represent 28 countries.
The program is interdisciplinary and is led by a team of scholars who look at conflict from multiple perspectives across the range of the social sciences. Lepadatu’s colleague, the program director, is a German political scientist.
“It’s very exciting to work with this international team of scholars,” Lepadatu said. “[The program] is innovative and dynamic.”
The new program highlights KSU’s vision to position itself as Georgia’s international university, a university that already boasts many international faculty members and encourages faculty to develop global partnerships.
In addition to including Romania in her research interests, during the past academic year Lepadatu also coordinated the Year of Romania Program at KSU. The academic program promoted Romania in the U.S., and included weekly events and lectures on Romanian culture and civilization, including a film festival, food tasting, art exhibits, concerts, academic lectures and a study abroad trip with 30 students.
Lepadatu credits Janoski for helping her see her international background as a significant asset.
When she arrived at UK, she felt her command of English and her self-esteem were below par. However, Janoski encouraged her to build an international research agenda, and his guidance prompted her to create meaningful research that has received many accolades.
"My position with KSU’s international conflict management Ph.D. program is a culmination of all my previous work and my career at this point, but I would not be here without the solid training and dedicated mentorship that I was privileged to receive during my graduate experience in the sociology department at UK," said Lepadatu. "Graduate school at UK was the best time of my life so far.”