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A Dream Scenario

W. Ann and Rachel Reynolds Dissertation Fellowship recipient Justin Raden discusses the impact of the award on his studies

A person standing in front of bookshelf smiling

Justin Raden jokes that after deciding he no longer wanted to study Engineering, he pursued the next major on the list, which was English. This was during his undergrad years in New Hampshire, and after earning his degree, he switched coasts to work in the software and technology sectors in the San Francisco Bay area. Then he switched continents, moving to London for his master’s in English.

He’d intended to stay in London, but happened to be in Chicago when negotiations between UIC faculty and administration were in the news. Given the crisis of the academic job market and the increasing precarity of graduate student life, the existence of both faculty and graduate worker unions made UIC extremely attractive to him. The English department’s active role in the faculty negotiations sealed the deal.

“I was doing calculus and physics my freshman year of undergrad, and while it was interesting, it is rote learning of formulas and laws,” says Raden. “I found myself attracted to the interpretive and social aspects of English. When you’re studying English, it can feel like you’re studying everything else at the same time. Literature opens up a vast interdisciplinary network of work.”

Interestingly, he’s managed to combine his propensity for math and engineering with his attraction to English. He’s expected to earn his PhD from UIC in spring 2022, and his dissertation focus tracks the development of different kinds of technical writing systems throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, and looks at how new writing systems put pressure on realist fiction and alphabetic writing.

He applied for the W. Ann and Rachel Reynolds Dissertation Fellowship Fund through the Graduate College, hoping the money would help support him while working on his dissertation. This is just what Ann and Rachel Reynolds intended. Ann, who was a professor of anatomy in College of Medicine as well as dean of the Graduate College and associate vice chancellor for research, along with her daughter Rachel, a UIC alumna, created the fellowship to support students pursuing a PhD in English and honor the experiences each had at UIC.  When Raden found out he’d won the fellowship, he found himself overwhelmed.

The fellowship is housed in UIC’s Graduate College, which brings together 8,000 graduate students across the university with outstanding research faculty in a diverse and stimulating urban environment. English is one of 90 master’s and 60 doctoral programs across UIC and it resides in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Graduate English areas of study include English Studies, English Education and the Program for Writers. Students also participate in several interdepartmental concentrations.

“At any time, full financial support for 12 months to work on a dissertation is a dream scenario,” says Raden. “An enormous factor for me was COVID and the halt it put on the research process. I had taken dissertation leave and lined up travel for research but everything was paused, creating a long period of time without institutional support. This gift recaptured some of that for me.”

The funding allows him to commit to a long period of intensive research to both complete the dissertation and polish materials that will project him nicely into the job market. He hopes to stay in academia and has found through UIC that he enjoys working on an urban campus with students like those at UIC, who come from all backgrounds and levels of preparedness.

At any time, full financial support for 12 months to work on a dissertation is a dream scenario.

Justin Raden

“UIC students juggle multiple jobs and responsibilities, and I’m constantly blown away by how they perform and how motivated they are,” he says. “I see my job here as creating the space that allows them to do their thing.”

Rachel Reynolds agreed. “UIC’s English department is a very special program, working with large numbers of non-traditional students, children of immigrants and students of color,” she says. “For years, UIC English PhDs have gone on to extraordinary influence in people’s lives and we wanted to contribute to keeping this legacy strong as it’s one of the most important conduits for the human development of diverse peoples in American society that we can think of.”

“I’m grateful for the members of my dissertation committee, who’ve guided me through this process and who wrote letters of recommendation in support of my application for the Reynolds fellowship,” says Raden. “And I’m grateful to Ann and Rachel Reynolds as well. The Reynolds Dissertation Fellowship is a huge boon to the research process; it saves me from having to teach during my dissertation’s completion, frees up a tremendous amount of time and keeps me from having to find supplementary funding.”

The Reynolds’s generous contribution counts toward IGNITE: The Campaign for UIC in its efforts to support student success. It answers the university and Graduate College’s aim to remove the burden of financial worry from UIC’s talented graduate students.