Linguistics Student Wins UT Research Award

Linguistics and TESOL doctoral candidate Lori McLain Pierce (left), mentored by Professor Colleen Fitzgerald (right), was recently named a Jess Hay Chancellor’s Fellow by UT System.

Emphasizing revitalization and community building, doctoral candidate Lori McLain Pierce hopes a new $10,000 research award will enable her dissertation project to steer the Choctaw language away from a path of endangerment.

Recently, Pierce was named a Jess Hay Chancellor’s Fellow, a graduate student research fellowship established by and named for the former University of Texas System regent. Only two awards are given each year, with the awards rotating among 10 UT institutions.

Pierce, who is working on her Ph.D. in the Department of Linguistics and TESOL, said the award will “jump start” her work with Choctaw speakers in Dallas and southern Oklahoma. She said the research idea grew out of an endangered languages class.

“In the past year, we had a class with Choctaw speakers, approaching the language as if we knew nothing,” Pierce said. “I plan to continue working with them, to look at the sounds of their language and address questions that haven’t adequately been answered.”

One of the ways she will do that is by focusing on traditional and personal stories told by Choctaw speakers.

“It was neat to see how the traditional animal stories you might find in any culture were important to this community,” she said. “You could see who the funny or the mischievous archetype was and what that said about the culture.

Dr. Philip Cohen, Vice Provost for Academic Affairs and Dean of the Graduate School, nominated Pierce for the Hay fellowship award. She is a previous research award winner at UT Arlington’s Annual Celebration of Excellence by Students (ACES) symposium.

“This award is a testament to Lori’s original research and to the Linguistics Ph.D. program,” said Cohen. “It is also a reflection of the University’s progress in improving doctoral education as we strive to become a national research facility.”

Linguistics doctoral candidate Lori McLain Pierce, left, works with JB Fish on an Alabama language project at the 2012 Oklahoma breath of Life Workshop last May. (Photo contributed)

Dr. Colleen Fitzgerald, Professor and Pierce’s mentor, said she’s proud of her student’s commitment to working with endangered languages and the recognition she’s received.

“What I love about watching Lori and her work over the past few years is that she’s taken what I hope all my students will learn … and thinking about how to have an impact,” Fitzgerald said. “My belief is that if you are working with Native communities that have gone through colonialism, genocide, and have disproportionately suffered the effects of poverty, you have an opportunity and obligation to take what you know and make an impact.”

Fitzgerald has garnered numerous grants and national attention for her work with Native American communities in Oklahoma. Regional tribes often recruit her to consult on their language revitalization projects. In Spring 2010, she used an I Engage grant from the Office of Graduate Studies to fund student service-learning trips in Oklahoma, the language revitalization class that sparked Pierce’s interest in this research area.

“[The trip] shows that when the University has invested in these types of projects and experiences … the students respond in ways that show professional development and a sense of responsibility,” Fitzgerald said.

Pierce is hopeful that once her dissertation is complete she will be able to continue her work with the Choctaw and contribute to their Language Program in Durant, Okla.

“The folks in the Choctaw community have been wonderful to work with,” she said. “What I’m hoping to do in the years to come… [is] build a relationship with them to make a bigger impact. They train teachers at the language center; then those teachers teach Choctaw. I’d like to help with those efforts.”

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