Tharuna Kalaivanan

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Tharuna Kalaivanan carves out a vital space for first-generation college students in the world of academic research at Mason. After earning her B.A. in Psychology in the spring of 2020, Kalaivanan continues to make an impact on the Honors College. 

Having completed her undergraduate studies at Mason, Kalaivanan was an active member of the research community, where she sought to understand and communicate the lived experiences of first generation college students. 

Now, Kalaivanan is a Public and Applied Sociology Ph.D. candidate in Mason’s sociology department where she continues to seek opportunities for first-generation students, like herself, to learn more about themselves and their experiences as researchers. 

Growing up Indian-American, diverse perspectives in academia are deeply personal to Kalaivanan. Now, as a graduate student, Kalaivanan reflects on the challenges she faced as both a first-generation American and a first-generation undergraduate. “Being a first-generation college student, I was nervous about the whole [application] process…a lot of times it feels like you're walking in the dark with that kind of application process because you don't really know what to expect.” 

As a Ph.D. candidate, Kalaivanan maintains Mason’s inclusive, multicultural spirit in all the work that she does. During the Fall 2021 semester, Kalaivanan taught her own section of the Principles of Research and Inquiry (HNRS 110), which allows all first-year Honors College students the opportunity to design their own semester-long research projects. 

“I think undergraduate research is really important because not a lot of students know what research is coming into Mason, and that was the case with me. [Principles of Research and Inquiry] (HNRS 110) really opened up [my definition of] what research is…and how to really engage with conversations with other scholars.” 

In addition to the course she is teaching this fall, Kalaivanan also taught an Honors seminar during the summer for 10th grade students in Mason’s Early Identification Program (EIP), a college preparatory program for high school students who will be the first in their families to attend university. “I was very pleased with that experience of, as a first-generation college student myself, [getting to] inspire other students to also be curious and to think of themselves as researchers… and just giving them that exposure to the opportunity.” 

Though Kalaivanan is not an EIP alumna herself, she credits Honors College faculty, like Dr. Blake Silver, with opening doors she did not know existed as a first-generation college student. 

In fact, Kalaivanan recalls that she did not know she identified as a first-generation college student until she began collaborating with Dr. Blake Silver as a research assistant in the Social Science Research Lab (SSRL). “I didn't even know I was a first-generation college student until I was part of the lab and they told me that there's a whole population of kids who categorized as first-generation college students and they have various experiences that go with being a first-generation college student. I was very relieved that I wasn't the only one.” 

In the Social Science Research Lab, Kalaivanan worked on a project that assessed how first-generation students who were in their final year of their undergraduate studies were navigating the next steps. Research about first-generation college students often focuses solely on their arrival at the university, but Kalaivanan and other researchers in the Lab were interested in how first-generation students approach life after college. 

In her own research, Kalaivanan explores the complexities of second-generation Asian American identity in professional settings. By conducting in-depth interviews, Kalaivanan explored how the social structures of the workplace impacted Asian American identity either positively or negatively. On Thursday, October 21st, Kalaivanan presented her findings at the Public Sociology conference here, at Mason. 

This spring, Kalaivanan is teaching a multimedia course about the experiences of first-generation college students, called First Generation College Students (HNRS 131). While Kalaivanan deeply values formal research, informed by an academic perspective, she emphasizes the fact that knowledge can be found anywhere. “I want students to know that we can get information through various mediums, so going beyond scholarly articles, we will focus on books, narrative writing, podcasts, documentaries, and news articles to really give multiple perspectives on how people are talking about first generation college experience.” 

Kalaivanan advises all Honors College students, regardless of their background or experience, to take advantage of the opportunity to conduct research at Mason. “Not a lot of students think that they can be researchers, but as long as you have a curiosity—a question—really, anyone can do research.”