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Whitney Duncan headshot.

Health, Self and the Human Experience

2024 HSS College Scholar and Anthropology professor approaches scholarship through storytelling and advocacy in immigrant communities. 

Anthropology Professor Whitney Duncan, Ph.D., has been teaching at the University of Northern Colorado (UNC) since 2012, is the author of dozens of scholarly publications, including two books, does activism work for half a dozen different groups in Colorado, and is the recipient of a bevy of awards and honors. Most recently, she was recognized as the College of Humanities and Social Science’s (HSS) 2024 College Scholar.  

But there’s a universe out there where she never did any of that – never taught at UNC, never entered the field of anthropology at all.  

Only when a chance assignment while working as a freelance reporter brought her face-to-face with a farm worker’s rights movement in the Hudson Valley did the stars align. She realized that she wanted to dig deeper into understanding people’s lives and some of the emotional aspects of migration, immigration and mental health – deeper than her role as a journalist would ever allow her to go.  

And only when a last-minute offer from UNC came in, allowing her to join her partner in moving to Colorado rather than having to accept a position on her own in Oregon, did she land at the institution that would be her home for the next 12 years.  

“It was a dramatic moment,” Duncan said. “It was only just in the nick of time that things turned out the way they did. It felt a little like fate.”  

With the stars aligned and fate working its magic, Duncan has contributed to both the academic portfolio of the university and to causes like the improvement of student’s mental health and the rights of immigrants in the Colorado area throughout her time here.  

“I emphasize to students that I want them to succeed, to give them opportunities where we can learn and grow, but also do real work and understand that that work has impacts for improving the world around us.”

— Whitney Duncan

According to Duncan, her recent selection as HSS College Scholar was particularly meaningful when it came to recognizing the work she has done.  

“It means a lot to me, because my work hasn’t necessarily followed the typical academic trajectory – I’ve been engaged in community activism, some of my publications are poetry or creative prose, articles in magazines and things like that,” she said. “To see those values confirmed and celebrated means a lot to me.”  

In the classroom, Duncan endeavors to provide students with that same level of recognition and acceptance. Cultivating a space for her students to grow, to challenge themselves and to feel OK with being vulnerable is a core part of her philosophy when it comes to teaching. She also believes community engagement projects are central to a positive student experience. 

“I look at classes and teaching as opportunities to build relationships and for us to learn from each other; to really try to break down that hierarchical model where the professor is the expert authority,” she said. “I emphasize to students that I want them to succeed, to give them opportunities where we can learn and grow, but also do real work and understand that that work has impacts for improving the world around us.”  

When she isn’t teaching, Duncan conducts research and works with local advocacy organizations, with her primary areas of academic focus being immigration and the sociopolitical, cultural and global aspects of health, self and emotion.  

In 2023, she co-authored an article with UNC student Lupita Nabor Vazquez, a first-year student in the Colorado School of Public Health at UNC, titled “‘I don’t feel that we are a burden’: Latinx Immigrants and Deservingness during the COVID-19 Pandemic.” The piece examined how the same policies that were designed to provide aid and support to Americans during the pandemic often ended up harming Latine immigrants materially, mentally and symbolically.  

"We were very interested in examining how those policies impacted a sense of deservingness and how, in a concrete way, we could counter some of the hostile narratives towards immigrants and migrants that made it difficult for many to get access to healthcare and aid during the pandemic," Duncan said.  

With the topic of immigration into the United States as contentious as ever, and likely to play a major part in the upcoming presidential election, Duncan’s work is intrinsically linked to an issue that affects the lives of millions of people across the country. Specifically, Duncan recently wrapped up data collection for a four-year National Science Foundation-funded project, “An Ethnographic Study of Local-Level Policy Implementation.” 

"[The project] really brought to the fore our capacity and obligation, I would say, as anthropologists, to work as advocates," she said. "I, and many others during the pandemic, had the privilege of job security, of working from home, of reducing my risk of getting sick, that very few of the immigrants and migrants I was working with had."   

She feels that at times, anthropological work and research can become too rigid, too focused on methods that are dictated by pre-existing research questions.  

"That's how we're trained," she said. "Develop a research question, explore it qualitatively. A lot of the time, the result of that is work that doesn't really matter to the communities we’re working with and that doesn't necessarily make any changes to the world that would help ameliorate any of the challenges that they face."    

One of the best ways to help change that structure, Duncan said, is to enable the voices of immigrants and migrants to be heard directly, rather than through scholarly articles or rhetoric-laden reports from the media.  

To that end, she has been working on a storytelling project, collaborating with immigrant communities in the advocacy spaces she’s involved with. The goal is to create spaces of community and healing, where participants can share stories beyond those required of them in legal proceedings, news reports and advocacy groups.      

"The ways we’re presented with immigrant and migrant experiences often manifest as like, 'tell us your stories of suffering and of oppression and vulnerability,'” Duncan said. “And those are important, but they're not nearly the whole of it. [There are also] sensory memories of hometowns or loved ones they haven't been able to see in decades, memories that are often beautiful, fond and intensely human."  

Duncan hopes the project will highlight human resilience, how we seek out and experience pleasure, memory and the nuances of life regardless of our circumstances or the challenges we face. 

More information on Duncan’s books can be found at the following webpages: Transforming Therapy: Mental Health Practice and Cultural Change in Mexico and Accompaniment with Im/Migrant Communities: Engaged Ethnography.

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