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Stefani Baca-Atlas is an interprofessional researcher who studies structural and historical risk factors that facilitate transgenerational trauma, and relationships between migration, victimization and exploitation, and mental, physical, and behavioral health outcomes. The Graduate School featured her volunteerism at Carolina in response to the COVID-19 pandemic in spring 2021.


Phoenix, Arizona

Stefani Baca-Atlas, smiling
Stefani Baca-Atlas

Area of study:

Ph.D.; School of Social Work

What motivates you?

Injustice and inequity fuel the fire and nurture the heart that motivate me. I think it takes both sides of the coin to succeed in the academy as a Latina and first-generation doctoral student. I am driven to study the relationships between structural racism, violence against female identifying persons (violence against women), and population health inequities. One of the factors that keeps me focused is my concern that “structural” (as in “structural racism”) is part of the general discourse that allows individuals to absolve themselves of responsibility for their part in maintaining systems of oppression. In actuality, decisions at the individual level preserve and maintain systems of oppression. I hope that this work will reduce stigma against survivors of violence and that it can be used to educate the public about the impact of limiting access to resources and opportunity for historically marginalized people.
I am inspired by warriors who paved the way and continue to chart the course for scholars like me: the astronomers of Meso America; the organizers who fought for rights of the exploited; the pioneers in newly integrated schools; the academics who were forced to establish their expertise time and again; and the racial social work scholars who fight injustices in the system in big and small ways. I am motivated when I see my peers succeed amidst all of this chaos. I find resolve when my master’s of social work students share that I am their first Latinx professor. No matter the setbacks, I am determined to finish this journey because I know that representation and mentorship can be the difference between completing a program and walking away, and I intend to advocate for and support students throughout my career.

Why UNC-Chapel Hill?

I was working as a social worker with survivors of human trafficking when I met Dr. Dean Duncan, a research professor at the School of Social Work. Dr. Duncan’s work is community-driven, and he was genuinely interested in learning about the work we were doing. When I told him I was interested in pursuing a Ph.D., he suggested that I apply and told me I would have a place on his Project NO REST team if I was accepted. Although I always knew I wanted to apply to a doctoral program, meeting Dr. Duncan was a turning point for me because I felt supported and was able to visualize tangible steps toward success at UNC-Chapel Hill.

How have you built community at UNC-Chapel Hill?

DSS provided my first opportunity to get out into the Carolina community, and I credit everyone there with helping me feel secure enough to engage in other Carolina initiatives. Everyone was so kind and automatically embraced me like we were old friends. It was lovely! Over the summer, I was fortunate to join a group called Accountabilibuddies. Farnosh Mazandarani created this student-run group based on the Writing Center’s Dissertation Bootcamp. We meet every week (Monday-Friday from 9-12 and/or 1:15-4:15). I met several amazing folks (and their pets!) who I would not have met otherwise because we are all from different departments. I love my buddies! Email me if you are interested in joining us!

Describe DSS in five words!

Welcoming, Motivational, Supportive, Collaborative, Fun!
*Baca-Atlas also identifies with the Initiative for Minority Excellence program.
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