Meet Dr. Scarlett Hester, an assistant professor in the Department of Communication Studies and CCIM alumna with a passion for inspiring students and researching her interests in Korean diaspora and how aspects of identity present themselves in professional sports culture.
What brought you to Ball State?
I’m very excited to be at Ball State. I just started my third year this fall, and my journey to Ball State is kind of a return home. I earned my master’s from the Department of Communication Studies here. I’m not going to say when, but you could figure it out if you did the math. And so I went on and earned my Ph.D., I did a postdoc at a different institution, worked at another institution for a few years, and so when the opportunity presented itself to apply for and hopefully get a job at Ball State, I just jumped at the opportunity.
I think the department of communication studies – obviously I‘m biased, but it’s very unique – it’s a wonderful place to be, but just CCIM and Ball State itself is a really special institution, and I’m so excited to be back here and I’m loving my time since.
What do you feel are some of the characteristics that make Ball State and CCIM special?
I think what makes CCIM and Ball State special is that, especially in CCIM and the different units and departments, I feel like you get the small school experience where you get to learn your classmates’ and professors’ names and more than just their names, you get to know more about them personally. What are their pets’ names? What activities are they involved in on campus? While still getting the larger school experience at the university at large.
I really think it’s the best of both worlds where you get those interpersonal one-on-one connections that you might not get at larger institutions. However, then you still get the amenities and the big school kind of feeling with the school spirit and larger university events.
How did you find a passion for teaching?
I realized I enjoyed and wanted to pursue a career in teaching when I was a graduate assistant here at Ball State. Before coming here, I was a journalism undergraduate major, and then I worked at my undergrad institution for a year and I hated it; it was horrible just because it was an office job, and I did not enjoy that. And so I got into the master’s program here, and I had a teaching assistantship, which I was really fortunate to have, and luckily enough, I really enjoyed teaching. I realized that was what I wanted to do, so I decided to pursue my Ph.D. to make a career out of it.
I think college students are great. I believe college is a special time when you are figuring out who you are, what you believe, what you care about, and what you’re passionate about. And I love being able to interact with college students in that way and hopefully play a small role in introducing other ideas and shaping some kind of thoughts, and I think that’s why I have a passion for teaching.
The topics that you mainly study are very interesting, can you tell us a little bit about your research?
So, I have two major lines of research. In the first line of research, I’m interested in how aspects of identity present themselves in professional sports culture. What I mean by that is, how do sports media and just our pop culture in general talk about different sports controversies or different athletes in terms of their race, ethnicity, sexuality, and gender, and how does that impact our larger understanding of these things culturally? I like to study things like the Colin Kaepernick controversy; I’m working on a piece right now about Kobe Bryant and how his passing impacts how we memorialize him and what we prioritize in that.
And then my second line of research is, I’m interested in Korean American adoptees and how they navigate their identity in terms of something called diaspora. So, diaspora means when you are no longer connected to your homeland. So, I’m trying to figure out that area of research; it’s not developed as my first line of research. But essentially, what I’m trying to research is how people figure out and communicate aspects of their identity.
Was there anything particular that drew you to these two things?
Yeah, actually, in several of the classes I took as a master’s student at Ball State, I got to pick different research topics and various things that I was interested in. One of my favorite papers that I wrote while I was here was about when Peyton Manning announced that he was leaving the Colts. He was very visibly crying, the coach was visibly crying, and everyone was really emotional. And I thought that was a really unique thing to see, and I was interested in how we responded to that and what the media said about that. I realized that could be a whole area of research; I also love pop culture in general, so the fact that I can take something that I really enjoy and use that as an area of research was really appealing to me.
Do you have a teaching philosophy? What have you found is most important in the classroom to help students?
My teaching philosophy is that I want students to feel comfortable and welcome but also open to being challenged. I remember being a college student and being so excited about all of the ideas and also skeptical of all the things I was learning just because they were things that I had never heard or talked about before. And so, I want students to feel comfortable enough to vocalize their ideas, test those ideas out, and gain confidence in talking about those things. But also, being willing to be challenged on those ideas because I am a communication professor, and talking about things and understanding and listening are fundamental aspects of building a larger community and connection. Ultimately, I want the different classes I enter and spaces to feel like smaller communities.
How do you get students excited and engaged in the classroom?
I think I’ve been pretty fortunate that I get to teach classes like communication and popular culture and communication in sports, and students enter those classes kind of excited to talk about those things because who doesn’t like to talk about popular culture or their favorite TV shows and movies and athletes? So I think I’ve been pretty fortunate in that sense, but I think one thing I try to do to sustain their excitement about that is I try to view the classroom as collaborative, in the sense that I’m super open to the topics that they want to talk about. A lot of my pop culture interests are not the same as the student’s pop culture interests, and so if there are different cases that they believe are fascinating or hearing various examples so, I can learn more and stay up to date because I feel that slowly fading as I get older.
Have there been any stand-out moments for you in your class or working with your students where you could tell the impact that you were making?
I think one is not necessarily an individual example, and I wouldn’t say it was an impact I was making. Still, it was just the general level of community and camaraderie that I felt in the classroom last spring. I taught “Movements of Marginalized Voices,” and I think the general class dynamic was something that was special. All of the students were encouraging and supportive of one another. Different students shared different struggles of being able to change their gender identity on their license and how challenging that was. And just the way that everyone in the classroom was empathetic and supportive of that student, I think, was something that I was really sad for that student’s struggle.
I was really happy to see everyone rally behind that student and share that understanding and just wanting to be there and support that student, so I wouldn’t necessarily say that that was something that I did. Still, the dynamic of that class, the topics that people were talking about and sharing, and their willingness to be vulnerable were really special and evident, especially in that moment.
Do you feel like it was just a good class, or was there something that led to that moment?
I think it was probably a little bit of both; I believe that in that class, I really tried to emphasize the community aspect and the fact that the class is called “Movements of Marginalized Voices.” We were going to be talking about topics that were maybe challenging or maybe hit closer to home for some than others and so I think the content and the general willingness of the students to participate and listen to one another helped cultivate that.
What makes the Department of Communication Studies and CCIM special?
I would say, for me personally, what’s unique about being in comm studies is that being a faculty member is like a homecoming because I earned my master’s degree there, so I was already super familiar with all the faculty. Still, even more than that, everyone truly cares about one another. As faculty members, we care about our students, and it feels like a family kind of setting, which may deter some people, but I really like it. I like that I can talk to my colleagues about what I did this weekend and have professional conversations. Everybody in the department is super supportive and wants everybody to succeed and thrive to do their best at whatever they’re interested in.
I feel that in COMM Studies and CCIM as a whole, I like that I know other faculty members in other departments. When I see them walking to the Atrium or something, we all know each other’s names, and I think that level of comfortability isn’t something that exists at all places.
Are there any recent projects you’ve worked on and are proud of?
Yeah, so there are two things that I’m most excited about. One was a co-authored book chapter with one of the faculty members, Kathy Denker, in the department of comm studies that was just published, so I’m excited to see that finally out. But the other thing I’m excited about is I’m working on an article about Kobe Bryant’s memorial. So in that, I’m talking about how he, unfortunately, passed with his daughter, and so that complicates how we remember him as a sports star, as a cultural icon . . . and how the narrative now is very much that of a girl dad versus that of an NBA superstar with a kind of complicated public memory. Hence, it’s a sad project, but it’s a fun project for me. So, I’m excited about that.
What would you say is one or some of the proudest moments of your career so far?
There are two distinct proud moments of my career . . . and the first one, and it sounds really silly, but it would just be earning my Ph.D. in general. It was a really proud moment for me, and there was a moment when I wasn’t sure if I would finish. Writing a dissertation is a challenging and isolating process, so just finishing and earning my Ph.D. was a really proud moment. I think that really hit me when I got to go to commencement and was appropriately hooded, and they said my name, and I got my huge, embarrassingly large degree; I think that’s when it really sunk in. That was a huge accomplishment for me. I’m a first-generation college student, my parents go to college, and my dad doesn’t understand what I do, but he’s supportive, so all of those things made it special.
And being able to come to Ball State and be a faculty member is another proud moment of my career. I think before working here, if anyone asked me what kind of institution or job I wanted, I would explain the department and the institution as my model. Just because I think that all of the faculty in the department, in CCIM, are supportive and encouraging of one another and try to foster an environment of support and, so being able to say in a really silly kind of way that I have my dream job right now, I think is a really, I’m very proud to be able to say that as well.
How do you think being a first-generation student has impacted you up to this point?
Being a first-generation college student has impacted me in a variety of ways. I didn’t know what graduate school was, so I remember having a conversation with an undergraduate professor after I had graduated. I had been working at my undergrad institution and was deeply unhappy. I was like, I don’t know what I should be doing, and there was a professor that I was particularly close with, and she had said to me, “Well, I always thought you’d go to graduate school,” and I was like, “You’ve never said that, and I don’t know what that means, what does that mean?”
Fortunately, I’ve had a lot of great mentors and people in my life who have directed me on a path to help with that. I also think the faculty fellow for inclusive excellence, and with that, I’m in charge of running the Pathways Program, particularly the mentoring program where we try to mentor students interested in pursuing a graduate degree or currently pursuing a graduate degree. Some of that includes first-generation students. So I’ve been fortunate to have great mentors, but also because I was a first-gen student, I’m even more passionate about students who want to pursue that path can do so and at least know the questions to ask and things to look for because in academia when you’re in undergraduate, graduate, and professor, there are so many things that you don’t know until you know. A lot of that knowledge is hidden, so it’s crucial to unhide that knowledge for people.
Is your primary goal in helping first-gen students to make that knowledge more accessible?
That’s something that I am working towards. Through working with the Pathways Program, I realized that I am much more forthright in wanting to unmask many things that may not be common knowledge for first-generation students. For students unfamiliar with the US academic system and things like explaining what office hours are to students or when you’re emailing a professional email, this is the standard format. Just like small things that I think you don’t know unless somebody tells you I think are really important. If we start having more conversations about these things, students will feel more confident and be set up to be successful; success is subjective but on the path to whatever they want to achieve.
What are your goals for the future?
I am in my third year now at Ball State, so I think some of my goals for the future are to publish some things because I have to and because I’m excited about it . . . to hopefully earn tenure . . . here at Ball State. I really think that I’ve found a home in the department and a home at Ball State. I have really great colleagues. I genuinely enjoy the students here. They keep me on my toes; they make me laugh daily. So, my goal is to ultimately earn tenure to stay at Ball State.
Is there something that people don’t typically know about you?
A fun fact that nobody knows about me, or very few people know about me, is that I was an extra in a Bruce Springsteen music video when I was a small child. The music video for the Streets of Philadelphia, I grew up in Pennsylvania. You can only see the back of my head, and so you see a bright red sweater and then frizzy black hair, and that’s me. But for the music video, the Streets of Philadelphia, it starts with a bunch of cuts of scenes from Philadelphia. And there is a cut . . . of a bunch of small kids at the Liberty Bell, and so I was one of the small children, and you can see the back of my head. And I got to touch the Liberty Bell when I was a kid, so I didn’t appreciate the magnitude of that, but now, as an adult, I got to touch the Liberty Bell; that’s pretty cool. I touched the Liberty Bell and was in a Bruce Springsteen music video.
Is there anything else that you’d like to add?
I don’t think so; I acknowledge that I sound like I drank some Kool-Aid about how great comm studies and CCIM and Ball State University are. I fully recognize that every place is not always sunshine and rainbows. Still, compared to other places of employment and higher education institutions, the one thing that I appreciate about Ball State University is that even if they’re not always getting everything right, they’re at least trying and having conversations about how to address different things. So I think that’s pretty unique, and I appreciate that about Ball State.