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Alumni Spotlight: AshLee Smith

Recent Ogden Honors College graduate overcomes the odds to help others

It’s safe to say that nothing has come easy for recent Ogden Honors College alumna AshLee Smith. From growing up economically disadvantaged and unsure if she would even be able to attend college, to applying not once, but twice, for admission into the Ogden Honors College, AshLee has fought for every bit of success she’s had. But she chose to work harder each time she faced an overwhelming obstacle, and graduated with Upper Division Honors Distinction in May 2015. She is now pursuing a Ph.D. at Cornell, with the help of the competitive American Political Science Association Minority Fellowship, and hopes that her research will directly impact people like her—those who want to improve their lives but need a place to start. She recently sat down with us to talk about her time at LSU and how the Ogden Honors College prepared her for her next step.

I’ve heard that you have an interesting connection between what you study and your life. Can you tell me a little bit about your background?

I find myself continually asking how public policy affects the day-to-day life of a person like me: someone who has experienced the foster care system, grappled with poverty, and lived in a rural southern area as a multiracial woman – someone who faced nothing but hardships. My family adopted eight kids who were severely abused and neglected, and they have four biological, so I grew up with a lot of people.  We were pretty economically disadvantaged—we received free lunches in school, adoption subsidies to cover basic living expenses, and we were all on Medicaid. I’ve always known children and families who are struggling and I hope my future work makes a difference in their lives.

So how did you end up at LSU? Did you plan to go to LSU in high school?

I originally went to Arizona State my first semester, however, I ended up transferring to LSU for financial reasons. I’m glad I did—I had a great experience at LSU. I was in the Barrett Honors College at Arizona State, so after my first semester at LSU, I applied for the Ogden Honors College. I didn’t get in, so I applied again.

Persistence pays off!

Yes! They finally let me in, ha.

When you got into the Ogden Honors College, did you know what you wanted to major in?

I went to Arizona State to do global health. I thought I wanted to do Doctors Without Borders or something along those lines. And then I came to LSU, and I was undecided at first. I started off as a pre-med major my first semester and I was working 40 hours a week, which just wasn’t working. I took an anthropology class at Arizona State and I liked it. So I just stuck with anthropology here in the end. Part of my motivation for getting into the Ogden Honors College was to do a thesis, but I actually ended up doing my research in political science instead of anthropology.

That’s interesting. So how did that happen?

Well, my research started out in anthropology. I did the ASPIRE program and was matched with Joyce Jackson, associate professor in the Department of Geography and Anthropology. We did ethnography and qualitative research in the Ninth Ward in New Orleans, where we looked at cultural practices in the church and their resiliency after Hurricane Katrina. It was interesting, but I wanted to make a more direct impact than that kind of research allows. As a junior, I started to explore what I wanted to do and considered social work, but when I talked with (Ogden Honors alumnus and policy analyst at One Acadiana) Jackson Voss, who did the Public Policy International Affairs Fellowship, he recommended that I apply for that fellowship. I didn’t have a political science background, so that next semester I took three political science classes in policy and poverty, and then I went to University of California, Berkeley for the policy fellowship.

What did you do at the Public Policy International Affairs Fellowship? What is it like? 

The fellowship consisted of very intense course work for seven weeks. You take three graduate level classes in economics, statistics, and policy analysis. (The classes) were really helpful, and they pushed me a lot. I’m glad I did the program—I met wonderful, like-minded students from around the country and the fellowship helped me define my career and academic goals.

So you ended up running with political science for your thesis. What was your thesis research about?

Yes. So I took LSU Associate Professor Belinda Davis’s Politics of Poverty course—I think it’s the best class at LSU—and her class inspired me to explore policy research. At first, I was thinking that I would do a master’s in policy and then become an analyst, but she changed my view on that. So I went for the fellowship at Berkeley and kept in touch with her, and then I took her graduate research methods class. She also introduced me to two great faculty members, James Garand, professor in the Department of Political Science, and Pam Monroe, professor in the LSU School of Social Work.  They were on my thesis committee and helped me tremendously. I did my thesis with Davis on the effectiveness of social safety net programs. We looked at the national children’s health survey, done by the CDC, and we did quantitative analysis on three assistance programs: the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program; the Women, Infants, and Children program; and the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. We wanted to see if they help low-income individuals with food insecurity. SNAP and TANF didn’t help, but WIC did. The SNAP finding was surprising since it’s the food stamps program, but TANF wasn’t surprising because the states decide how you get into the program and how much assistance you’re allowed, which isn’t much at all. So with WIC, it’s not that I want to say it is a more a stable program, but they are—I don’t know what the word is, I guess paternalistic. They determine what you eat in the program. They provide people with a voucher and they say, “This is WIC approved.” Because they determine what you eat every week, you get the same voucher. But with SNAP, you get all your money loaded on your card. At the beginning of the month, people will over-buy and have nothing left by the end of the month, which creates a cycle of food insecurity.

So you’re at Cornell studying political science. What made you decide to get your Ph.D. instead of your master’s?

So I thought to actually make an impact I needed to get a master’s and go apply it to the “real” world. I had the mindset that in school you’re in your ivory tower and you’re writing to other researchers, not to the public or policy makers. But what’s so awesome about Dr. Davis is that she is a researcher but she also is an activist and does applied work. She showed me that you could impact people through your research.  In addition, Dr. Garand and Dr. Monroe encouraged me to explore Ph.D. programs where I was able to focus on the things that are important to me.

What are you researching in your Ph.D. program?

I’m studying American Politics, and I will focus on social policy, poverty, inequality, state politics, and race. I would like to keep my focus kind of applied. My thesis research was more applied than most political science research, so I want to make sure I continue to impact real people. 

Do you feel that being in the Ogden Honors College impacted or benefited you during your time at LSU?

Yes, I think it has. I think that’s why I applied twice—because I knew it would impact my future. The decision to do a thesis was probably the biggest thing. I was able to do some research with outstanding faculty members and now I’m better prepared for graduate school.

What advice would you give to someone who’s just started in the Ogden Honors College, or who is considering applying?

I think a lot of people in the Ogden Honors College are perfectionists, and so I would say to not be so hard on yourself. College is hard enough as it is, you don’t have to be perfect. I’ve met a lot of people here, and they’re great, but I feel like they’re really hard on themselves. Enjoy college and just be okay with you.  As my mom always told me, “you have to find joy in the journey.”