From Rural Poverty to a Knight-Hennessy Sponsored PhD at Stanford: Lydia Burleson on her Research, Career Trajectory, and Time at Dwight Hall.

Dwight Hall is proud to announce that Lydia Burleson, the Hall’s current Communications and Alumni Engagement Associate, has been admitted to Stanford’s English PhD program and awarded the prestigious Knight-Hennessy Fellowship–a three-year fellowship award that honors Lydia’s commitment to public service and the public interest of her forthcoming research. 

Stanford’s Knight-Hennessy Scholars program provides funding to an incoming 80-member cohort for up to three years of graduate study at any of Stanford’s seven graduate schools, as well as leadership programming and access to a community of like-minded scholars. The program fosters civic mindedness, visionary thinking, and leadership in its multicultural and multidisciplinary scholars. 

A member of the 2022 cohort, Lydia will pursue a PhD in English, where she aims to research how different intersecting identities are represented and misrepresented in the media. She hopes to use public humanities to share her work with the communities she will study. Her ultimate goal is to become a professor and a writer. 

Lydia’s aspirations for her time at Stanford as a Knight-Hennessy scholar and beyond are largely informed by her upbringing and her time at Yale, from which Lydia graduated cum laude in 2021. Growing up in Sulphur Springs, a largely impoverished community in rural Texas, with two disabled parents, Lydia once dreamed of being a hairdresser or a teacher. She says that coming to Yale as a QuestBridge scholar was “trajectory altering.” She was launched into a world with possibilities and began to consider becoming a professor as a feasible and rewarding career option. 

But coming to Yale from a high school where 20% of her class did not graduate and where most did not attend college presented many challenges. In her hometown, Lydia found that books, TV, and movies were her only outlets for forming perceptions of people with identities different from the ones that she and her largely white conservative community belonged to. At Yale, interacting face-to-face for the first time with more diverse lived experiences, Lydia found that many of her peers had a difficult time understanding her identity as a rural first-generation low-income student and that she likewise struggled to understand theirs.  

At Yale, Lydia (initially unconsciously) sought out academic and social experiences that allowed  her to explore budding questions of identity. In her literature and creative writing courses in Yale’s English department, she looked at the intersection of lived experience and literary attempts to fully represent this. During her senior year, when Lydia took a course called “James Baldwin’s American Scene” with Yale’s Thomas E. Donnelly Professor of African American Studies and of English, Jacqueline Goldsby, she noted that Baldwin’s 1949 essay “The Preservation of Innocence” provided an avenue to grapple with questions of intersecting identities; she noted that the essay was a place where lived experience was directly put in conversation with literature and the media. With this essay and more recent coursework, Lydia found language to explain what she had already been feeling: the media we consume often misrepresents the identities we seek to understand, and this misrepresentation prevents people from fully understanding or engaging with experiences that are different from their own.  

Considering full identity representation became Lydia’s focus during her time as a Yale undergraduate, and it was a line of thinking that came with her when she joined the staff at Dwight Hall. After graduating from Yale in 2021 with a degree in English and a nonfiction writing concentration, Lydia immediately began working as the Hall’s Communications and Alumni Engagement Associate. In this position, she considered ways to amplify the many diverse voices that contribute to Dwight Hall and New Haven. She led many communications initiatives to highlight these stories and to make them accessible to the Yale and broader community.

Dwight Hall’s Executive Director Peter Crumlish said, “Lydia played a vital role during the second year of the pandemic keeping the work of the Hall visible while our physical interactions remained frustratingly restricted. She kept the public aware of the amazing work of our students through thoughtfully crafted social media posts; attracted new students to engage in community service through publications like Voices & Stories, which she designed and produced with ExComm’s PR Coordinators; completed the launching of our new website, facilitating involvement with all the opportunities the Hall offers; and more. We will miss her but are all excited for her new adventure on the West Coast.”

During her year with the Hall, Lydia co-founded Voices and Stories, relaunched Dwight Hall’s podcast, created a 5-student communications and podcast team, and used social media, print media, and Dwight Hall’s now monthly newsletters to spotlight student, alumni, and community social justice work. She ends her time at Dwight Hall on May 31st and will head to Stanford in the fall. Lydia is one of 5 Yale graduates this year to be awarded the Knight-Hennessy Fellowship. Read more about her and the other Yale recipients here.

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