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Annual Junior Scholars Intensive Training celebrates fifth year at UW–Madison

Story by Maddie Kranz x’24, UW–Madison student studying Community & Nonprofit Leadership and Art History

Earlier this summer, UW–Madison and Howard University once again brought together leading and emerging scholars to help solve problems related to retirement, disability and other pressing issues.

June 12 marked the beginning of the fifth-annual Junior Scholars Intensive Training (JSIT), hosted at UW–Madison by its Center for Financial Security (CFS) and Howard University’s Center on Race and Wealth. This program is part of an agreement between the Social Security Administration (SSA), UW–Madison, Howard and other research centers across the country that focus on retirement and disability research. The training provides scholars across the country and world with an opportunity to develop research proposals with the potential to change how the United States cares for oft-ignored citizens.

The aim of the weeklong program is to bring individuals with different backgrounds, disciplines and interests together to discuss research ideas and write initial proposals relevant to the SSA’s programs, policies or beneficiaries. Participants include junior faculty, newly graduated PhD researchers and others who are interested in topics related to social insurance and its intersections with disability and retirement.

A group of people sit and listen to a lecturer in a classroom.
2023 JSIT scholars attended sessions with mentors and speakers from across the United States

“This training prepares them and hopefully whets their appetite and their interest in retirement and disability research,” says Hallie Lienhardt, assistant director of CFS. “The goal is to help make the connection with how their existing interests actually interact with Social Security programs.”

Scholars say this experience has done just that. Each individual’s unique education and background provides their peers with deeper insights. Maretta McDonald, an affiliate faculty member at Virginia Tech and National Poverty Fellow for the Institute for Research on Poverty at UW–Madison, finds that her previous work in child support services has informed her research.

“Being a practitioner-turned-academic helps me understand policy and practices so my research can be understandable to policymakers and those in the field,” McDonald says. “As a researcher, my primary goal is to reach people who make policy decisions and allow them access to new and compelling empirical evidence on the real-world impacts of their decisions.”

Participants also found value in connecting with their peers. McDonald decided to expand the focus of her research to include older adults and people with disabilities after she spoke with fellow scholars about the needs of these communities. Somalis Chy, a PhD candidate in the School of Human Ecology’s Consumer Science department, knows firsthand the importance of openly working with others.

“Part of what I have learned as an international student is that it is beneficial and crucial to be open-minded and appreciate differences in ideas and perspectives,” Chy explains. “JSIT was a reflection of the diversity in thoughts, perspectives, backgrounds, disciplines, skills and interests. I think my experience has definitely played a role in my appreciation of those differences and has helped me foster a productive atmosphere, genuine exchanges of ideas, interest in each other’s works and meaningful connections.”

Scholars’ work from this week of training can be entered in a fall competition to win funding, and the work may go on to influence new or updated SSA policies.

“On a national level, findings from my research and JSIT may be used to inform the SSA of a program’s relevant benefits or drawbacks to their beneficiaries, especially how the beneficiaries interact with programs like Social Security Disability Insurance and Survivor & Spousal Benefits,” says Chy.

A collage of square portraits of 15 people.
2023 JSIT scholars.

Lienhardt says she has seen scholars go from not viewing SSA programming as a research interest to researching with the University of Michigan–Ann Arbor’s Michigan Retirement and Disability Research Center and the National Bureau of Economic Research. These works may also be used globally to inspire scholars in similar fields or inform other countries on how to alter or develop their social welfare programs.

Other 2023 scholars also have a background in studying socioeconomic inequality. Magalie Nicolas, an adjunct professor at Barry University’s School of Social Work, researches intergenerational trauma and resilience, mental health and health disparities. Nicolas’ background in mental health helps her understand what is happening at different levels with SSA beneficiaries and informs her of potential gaps in practice that can be corrected through research.

“My involvement in JSIT helped broaden my understanding of these programs from an economic and policy context,” says Nicolas. “To be in a room with seasoned scholars, researchers and professors imparting their expertise was invaluable.”

Lienhardt says that she has been “extremely impressed with the caliber of scholars that we have been able to attract with this program.”

JSIT “is working remarkably well, we’re extremely happy with it, and the Social Security Administration is quite happy with it,” says Lienhardt.

Learn more about this year’s scholars on the CFS website.

2023 JSIT Scholars

  • Somalis Chy, University of Wisconsin–Madison
  • Amber Davis, Johns Hopkins University
  • Hira Farooqi, Center for Global Development
  • Isabel García Valdivia, Brown University
  • Hyun Ju Kim, University of New Hampshire
  • Stephan Lefebvre, Bucknell University
  • Kajda Llana, University of Delaware
  • Maretta McDonald, University of Wisconsin–Madison
  • Ravaris Moore, New York University
  • Magalie Nicolas, Barry University
  • Charlotte O’Herron, Harvard University
  • Matthew Pesner, University of Michigan
  • Meredith Slopen, Columbia University
  • Eman Tadros, Governors State University
  • Lauren Toppenberg, Columbia University

2023 JSIT Mentors & Speakers

  • Fenaba Addo, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • Lonnie Berger, University of Wisconsin–Madison
  • Marcy Carlson, University of Wisconsin–Madison
  • Marah Curtis, University of Wisconsin–Madison
  • Kathryn Edwards, RAND Corporation
  • Jason Fichtner, Bipartisan Policy Center
  • Melody Harvey, University of Wisconsin–Madison
  • Haydar Kurban, Howard University
  • Madelaine L’Esperance, University of Alabama
  • Sophie Mitra, Fordham University
  • Tim Moore, Purdue University
  • Stephanie Moulton, The Ohio State University
  • Elizabeth Odders-White, Nodramaturg Career Coaching
  • David Pate, University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee
  • Dan Sacks, University of Wisconsin–Madison

CFS Faculty & Staff Organizers

  • J. Michael Collins*, Faculty Director, Center for Financial Security; Fetzer Family Chair in Consumer and Family Science, School of Human Ecology, University of Wisconsin–Madison
  • Katie Jatjner*, Research Associate, Center for Financial Security, University of Wisconsin–Madison
  • Sarah Halpern-Meekin*, Associate Professor, Human Development & Family Studies, School of Human Ecology, University of Wisconsin–Madison
  • Carly Urban*, Associate Professor, Economics, Montana State University
  • Justin Sydnor*, Associate Director of Research, Center for Financial Security; Associate Professor, Actuarial Science, Risk Management & Insurance, Wisconsin School of Business, University of Wisconsin–Madison
  • Hallie Lienhardt, Assistant Director, Center for Financial Security, University of Wisconsin–Madison

*denotes JSIT mentors and speakers