Ashley Steen, who is pursuing a master’s degree in Criminal Justice, works at UCF’s Puerto Rico Research Hub. Her Student Research Week project was inspired by her work at the Hub.

Student Research Week: The Impact of Disaster Migration on Receiving Communities

By: Zenaida Gonzalez Kotala on

When Ashley Steen arrived at UCF, she found research opportunities quickly. As a McNair Scholar, she jumped right into research, which blended her areas of interest — psychology and criminal justice.

The Puerto Rico native already had a psychology degree from Iowa State and was drawn to UCF’s criminal justice master’s degree program because of the diverse research opportunities.

She currently works alongside Professor Fernando Rivera at UCF’s Puerto Rico Research Hub. It was Rivera who suggested the research topic Steen is presenting at the Student Scholar Symposium. The symposium is part of  Student Research Week, which is free, open to the public, and ongoing in the Student Union this week.

Her topic is “Capacity and Change in Climate Migrant-receiving Communities in Central Florida.”

The project is extra special for Steen because it focuses on the connection between Orlando and Puerto Rico. She expects to graduate this spring, but before leaving UCF, she shared with us why she’s so passionate about the power of research.

What does your research examine and how does it impact the community?

My research focuses on how well migrant-receiving communities, such as Central Florida, are prepared to aid and sustain climate migrants. Climate migration refers to the displacement of people directly affected by climate related hazards, such as droughts, floods, hurricanes and earthquakes. Our study specifically focuses on individuals who had to move from Puerto Rico due to the devastation of Hurricane Maria in 2017. We interviewed various organizations focused on healthcare, housing, employment, social, cultural and recreational facilities, and finances to learn about what the migrants encountered once they arrived. This research is incredibly important because natural disasters are prevalent and frequent. By learning about both the shortcomings and successes these organizations had, they can better prepare for another natural disaster and understand what is needed to properly sustain the incoming population.

How did you develop the idea for this research project?

The research project was proposed by my research mentor, Dr. Rivera, in conjunction with the Urban Institute. The project is funded by the National Academy of Sciences Gulf Research Program and UCF’s Puerto Rico Research Hub was selected as the study site for the Central Florida region. I was lucky enough to join the project as it was just beginning and have been working on it ever since.

What should people know about your research?

Research on the migration population is crucial due to climate change. People are constantly migrating due to emergencies, whether it’s because of a natural disaster or war. Understanding the areas where migrants are moving to is a way to aid that incoming community, to lessen the hardship and provide all the necessities they need to continue living a fulfilled life. There are many barriers we found that were salient in our research — particularly language, lack of affordable housing and financial services. Unfortunately, unless there is a massive reversal, climate-related emergencies continue to become a more pressing issue and no community can assume that they are immune to being displaced or acting as a receiving community.

Why do you think research is so important?

I see research as the foundation of innovation. It is crucial to the world because it provides the evidence and understanding necessary to propose solutions to important problems. Without it, we would be guessing what the best methods are to resolve any issue.

Why did you choose UCF?

I chose UCF because of its beautiful campus in a great location and the variety of programs and opportunities offered, particularly the Puerto Rico Research Hub. UCF is not only close to my home, Puerto Rico, but also close to my parents in Tampa, Florida. Being from Puerto Rico, I also appreciated that UCF is considered a Hispanic Serving Institution. It made me feel comfortable speaking Spanish and finding like-minded individuals around campus.

Why are you pursuing your major or field of study?

I’m pursuing (a master’s in) criminal justice because I am interested in understanding and aiding the incarcerated population. After earning my psychology degree, I realized that the incarcerated population suffers many obstacles when it comes to their mental health and availability to healthcare. Currently, I am interested in finding solutions to these issues by further understanding the complexities of the criminal justice system.

Are there any awards or fellowships you have received or will be participating in this summer?

I am doing a graduate assistantship, which is funded by the Climate Migration grant provided by the National Academy of Sciences, with Dr. Rivera.

Besides that, I also had the opportunity last spring and summer to work alongside Dr. Jill Viglione in a research project called IM Stepping Up. The research focused on the utilization of mental health practices in jails and whether jails nationwide were appropriately using them. The involvement in this project led me to better understand the needs of the incarcerated population. In my undergraduate experience, I was lucky enough to become a McNair Scholar and I learned more about the research process, development and presentation. The program helped me to get where I am today and motivated me to pursue higher education.

What is your career goal?

My career goal is to become a licensed psychologist, with a specialization in addiction, substance abuse, and trauma. I hope to focus my practice on individuals currently or formerly incarcerated and provide services to those who are unable to access any. I hope to connect with people from the Latinx community since I can speak Spanish and English.

What are some of your hobbies?

In my free time, I like to go hiking, go to the movie theater, and travel. I love to discover new places, even if it’s right here in Orlando.

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