Student Research Week: The Impact of Disaster Migration on Host Communities

When Ashley Steen arrived at UCF, she quickly found research opportunities. As a McNair Fellow, she went straight into research, which mixed her areas of interest – psychology and criminal justice.

The Puerto Rican native already had a psychology degree from Iowa State and was drawn to UCF’s master’s degree in criminal justice program because of the various research opportunities.

She currently works alongside Professor Fernando Rivera at UCF’s Puerto Rico Research Center. It was Rivera who suggested the research topic that Steen presents at the Student Scholar Symposium. The symposium is part of Student Research Week, which is free, open to the public and underway in the Student Union this week.

His topic is “Capacity and Change in Climate Migrant Host Communities in Central Florida”.

The project is very special for Steen because it focuses on the connection between Orlando and Puerto Rico. She hopes to graduate this spring, but before leaving UCF, she told us why she’s so passionate about the power of research.

What does your research examine and what impact does it have on the community?

My research focuses on how migrant-receiving communities, such as central Florida, are prepared to help and support climate migrants. Climate migration refers to the movement of people directly affected by climate-related hazards, such as droughts, floods, hurricanes and earthquakes. Our study focuses specifically on people who had to leave Puerto Rico due to the devastation of Hurricane Maria in 2017. We interviewed various organizations focused on health care, housing, employment, social facilities, cultural and recreational and financial to learn more about what migrants encountered once they arrived. This research is extremely important because natural disasters are frequent and frequent. By learning both the shortcomings and the successes of these organizations, they can better prepare for another natural disaster and understand what is needed to properly support the incoming population.

How did you develop the idea for this research project?

The research project was proposed by my research mentor, Dr. Rivera, in collaboration with the Urban Institute. The project is funded by the National Academy of Sciences Gulf Research Program and UCF’s Puerto Rico Research Center was selected as the study site for the central Florida region. I was lucky enough to join the project because it was just getting started and I’ve been working on it ever since.

What should people know about your research?

Research on the migrant population is crucial due to climate change. People are constantly migrating due to emergencies, be it natural disaster or war. Understanding the regions where migrants move is a way to help this incoming community, ease the hardships and provide all the necessities they need to continue living a fulfilling life. We found many barriers that emerged from our research, particularly language, lack of affordable housing and financial services. Unfortunately, unless there is a massive reversal, climate-related emergencies continue to become a more pressing issue and no community can assume it is safe from being displaced or acting as a community of Home.

Why do you think research is so important?

I see research as the foundation of innovation. It is crucial to the world because it provides the evidence and understanding needed to propose solutions to important problems. Without it, we would be guessing what are the best methods to solve any problem.

Why did you choose UCF?

I chose UCF because of its beautiful campus in a great location and the variety of programs and opportunities offered, especially the Puerto Rico Research Center. UCF is not only close to my home in Puerto Rico, but also to my parents in Tampa, Florida. Being from Puerto Rico, I also appreciated that UCF was seen as a Hispanic-serving institution. It made me feel comfortable speaking Spanish and finding like-minded people on campus.

Why are you pursuing your major or field of study?

I am pursuing (a Masters in) Criminal Justice because I am interested in understanding and helping the prison population. After graduating in psychology, I realized that the prison population suffers from many barriers when it comes to their mental health and their availability to health care. Currently, I am interested in finding solutions to these problems by understanding more of the complexities of the criminal justice system.

Are there any awards or scholarships you have received or will be participating in this summer?

I am doing a graduate assistantship, which is funded by the Climate Migration grant provided by the National Academy of Sciences, with Dr. Rivera.

On top of that, I also had the opportunity this past spring and summer to work alongside Dr. Jill Viglione in a research project called IM Stepping Up. The research focused on the use of mental health practices in prisons and whether prisons across the country were using them appropriately. The involvement in this project led me to better understand the needs of the prison population. During my undergraduate experience, I had the chance to become a McNair Scholar and learned more about the research process, development, and presentation. The program helped me get to where I am today and motivated me to pursue higher education.

What is your career goal?

My career goal is to become a licensed psychologist, with a specialization in addiction, substance abuse and trauma. I hope to focus my practice on those currently or formerly incarcerated and provide services to those who do not have access to them. I hope to connect with people from the Latinx community, since I can speak Spanish and English.

What are some of your hobbies?

In my spare time, I like to hike, go to the cinema and travel. I like to discover new places, even if it’s here in Orlando.