The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Alum Jana Douglass named Marshall Scholarship Finalist

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Jana Douglass 20 was recently named a national finalist for the prestigious Marshall Scholarship. Beginning in 1954, Marshall scholarships were created in order to finance young Americans of high ability to study for a graduate degree in the United Kingdom. Marshall Scholars are talented, independent, and wide-ranging in backgrounds, and are selected for their potential to excel as scholars and leaders.

Of the thousands of students nominated by their universities this year for a total of forty Marshall Scholarships, Douglass was interviewed as one of the 160 finalistsa nod to her excellent academic and civic achievement.

“Jana is one of the most accomplished graduates in the Department of Human Geography,” Madalina Akli, Director of the Office of National Scholarship Advisement (ONSA) at UMass, said. “With a near-perfect GPA, she is more than a student who graduated with exceptional grades. She is always motivated to move beyond the grades and explore, through the guidance of her mentors, how to apply her knowledge to fieldwork, activism, and social justice.”

Douglass, who graduated with a degree in human geography and minored in Latin American, Caribbean, and Latino Studies and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, transferred to Commonwealth Honors College after one year at the University of California Santa Cruz. 

During this transitional period, Douglass participated in a study-away border studies program in Tucson, Arizona, which focused on transnational migration, indigenous sovereignty, environmental justice, and grassroots knowledge. This program allowed Douglass to intern at an undocumented workers center, where she gained firsthand experience dealing with the U.S-Mexican-Central American border crisis. 

Having already been exposed to some of these topics while majoring in Latin American and environmental studies at UC Santa Cruz, seeing these pressing situations develop influenced Douglass to shift her career focus.

“It was a validation of how intertwined things can be,” Douglass said of her time in Tucson. “One of my professors was a geographer and, beforehand, I thought of geography the way a lot of people think of it: maps or capitals or memorization. But he showed how there’s a whole spectrum of ways to approach it. It’s more of a framework of thinking of things spatially and, especially, in terms of spatial justice. Humans not only impact space, but space impacts people.”

The day her study-away program ended, Douglass still felt like she could do more to help the situation. She flew directly to the Mexican/Guatemalan border, where she stayed for two months to work at a migrant house on the route of “la bestia,” a train that many immigrants ride atop to travel north. 

Having already worked with activists and immigration lawyers, Douglass hosted “know your rights” training sessions to prepare immigrants when approaching the U.S./Mexico border. She also helped in everyday activities, such as cooking and running the infirmary. Douglass’ bilingualism helped her speak with immigrants and note their unique stories.

“People would tell me their stories and where they’re coming from,” said Douglass. “For example, there were people who may have been threatened by a gang, which is why they’re seeking asylum. There were also farmers who had been farming for generations, yet for the last three years, no rain had come.”

Douglass would later return to different areas of Mexico, including Tijuana, to prepare migrants for asylum interviews.

“It was a really formative experience,” Douglass said. “I learned so much from the volunteers and migrants. One of the most valuable experiences was developing relationships with migrants themselves. I’m friends with so many on Facebook, and we check in to see if they need advice or resources. In this kind of service work, it's so important that the people who are being helped are most informed of the process; they should be centered in every decision.”

Taking what she learned in Arizona and Mexico with her to UMass, Douglass continued to study the impact geography has on marginalized peoples. She worked closely with Professor Toby Applegate, a migration geographer who furthered the spatial lens on migration geography. 

Douglass’ studies included overlaying climate change maps to understand which regions in Central America experienced the worst storms or worst drought, which, in turn, causes certain populations to immigrate to the U.S. more than others.

She also participated in an Honors Thesis seminar entitled “Immigration and Mass Incarceration” with journalism professor Razvan Sibii. Working with Professor Sibii, Douglass gained another perspective to her studies and completed her thesis, “Grassroots Migrant Justice Organizing; Geographies of Resistance in the Age of Border Imperialism,” which looks at borders not as just physical walls, but as a culmination of histories and current realities, such as imperialism, colonization, and climate change.

During her time at UMass, Douglass also served as an organizer of the Trans Asylum Seeker Support Network (TASSN)a border abolitionist, direct action, and mutual aid collective that works in solidarity with Black and Brown transgender and LGBTQI asylum seekers while in immigrant detention and after they are freed.

Beyond being named a Marshall finalist, Douglass earned numerous scholarships during her time at UMass, including the Cooke Family Fund Scholarship, the Lawrence Payne '77 Public Service Scholarship, and the Department of Geography Outstanding Senior Award.

“At first I thought UMass was a big school, but the [Honors College] fosters smaller environments,” said Douglass. “It fosters more intimate relationships inside and outside the classroom which was really attractive.”

Douglass currently works in a transitional housing center for immigrant families and children in Austin, Texas, providing emotional and financial support to those in need. She still serves as a core organizer on the TASSN. For anyone that wants to help on these issues in a similar light to Douglass, she recommends they start locally.

“It is incredibly important that the people who are experiencing the worst impact of the problems are the ones whose voices are most amplified and led by,” Douglass said. “It’s important to me that whatever work I do centers their voices and decisions. I think my thesis focused on that idea.”

She appreciates her relationship with ONSA Director Madalina Akli for helping her explore numerous scholarships including the Marshall, and for helping her find her niche of combining learning on the ground with learning in the classroom.

“I’m grateful there are scholarships that value not only academic accomplishment, but the value of community and public service,” said Douglass. “I’m grateful that ONSA exists, as [I was] someone who never considered themselves a very strong candidate for the Marshall.”