Rising Star Award, Social Sciences: Nicole Nguyen, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences 

What happens when U.S. national security interests enter our high school classrooms, therapists’ offices or houses of worship? How do the government’s goals impact the relationship between, say, students and teachers? And how do the people in these institutions either push back against or absorb national-security interests? 

Nicole Nguyen, associate professor of criminology, law and justice, explains that these sorts of questions — “how national security priorities have shaped these everyday sites of life” — are what she explores in her research at UIC. 

In her first book, “A Curriculum of Fear: Homeland Security in U.S. Public Schools,” she detailed how these questions played out in a Washington, D.C.-area high school that had started a homeland security studies program, which Nguyen said was targeted at low-income students of color. Part of the impact was that these students would go back to their communities and try to find security threats.  

A woman poses for a photo
Nicole Nguyen (Photo: Jenny Fontaine/University of Illinois Chicago)

“They’d be on the bus trying to identify who’s a potential terrorist, if someone’s purse is a potential bomb,” Nguyen said. This mindset affected how those students experience life in their neighborhoods. 

At other schools, students moved in the opposite direction and resisted the curriculum, sometimes through direct action like protests, other times through more subversive acts. For example, as a way of pushing back against the increased use of fingerprint scans to check attendance, some students melted gummy bears and imprinted them with fingerprints to trick the machines, Nguyen explained. 

She also looks at how these dynamics play out in other contexts, such as mental health care delivered by therapists or clergy, because U.S. policy treats terrorism as a mental health problem, not a political one. 

“If mental health professionals are supposed to use the clinical setting to ascertain if somebody could be a potential terrorist, would you share if you had experienced trauma in Syria and are grappling with integrating into the United States?” she said. 

Nguyen said she feels a strong sense of accountability to the communities she researches and a desire to help in the struggle for justice. She credits UIC for valuing and supporting this sort of research.  

While she primarily writes academic papers and books, Nguyen has also written reports to help the communities she’s studied advocate for themselves. For example, she helped a group of activists in Los Angeles push back against a Department of Homeland Security grant intended to counter violent extremism. 

These moments are particularly gratifying, she said, “being able to see my research playing some small role in these community successes, these community wins.” 

Read about other recipients of the 2023 Researcher, Scholar and Inventor of the Year awards this week on UIC today, with new profiles posted each day. On April 22, you’ll find coverage on UIC today from the awards ceremony.


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