Student /Alumna Spotlight: Alyssa Quintanilla

Dr Alyssa Quintanilla (Ph.D., 2021) – Inaugural Humanities Engage Immersive Dissertation Research Fellow (2020/21)

As a scholar, digital artist, and activist, recent Ph.D. Alyssa Quintanilla wants to make more visible the realities migrants face when crossing the United States-Mexico borderlands. To do so, she created Vistas de la Frontera, a digital memorial that captures some of the places where migrants’ bodies have been recovered, as a part of her dissertation, A Matter of Waste and Bodies: Life, Death, and Materiality in the United States-Mexico Borderlands 1990 to the Present.

Alyssa had started studying English for her bachelor’s at the University of North Texas, followed by a master’s degree in Literature from University of Colorado. For her Ph.D., she wanted to do more experimental work and was attracted to the interdisciplinary Critical and Cultural Studies approach of Pitt’s English Department.

When she was finishing a dissertation chapter on digital memorials, Alyssa recognized an opportunity to create her own memorial using the 360 technology she had just learned about from Pitt’s Digital Media Lab. While recognizing that all memorials have gaps, Alyssa felt that “digital memorials have the possibility of reaching more people.” With the support of a Humanities Engage Immersive Dissertation Research Fellowship, Alyssa was able to move to Tucson, Arizona. Under Covid-19 protocols, she collaborated with the Tucson Samaritans and artist Alvaro Enciso. She documented some of the spaces where migrant bodies have been recovered in Vistas de la Frontera to “make them accessible for users to see and explore.” Her work as a scholar and activist aims to not just allow users to explore the borderlands but to think about their own participation in things “done in the name of national security.”

Being in the field as part of her immersive dissertation research fellowship significantly impacted Alyssa’s writing. Alyssa felt she came into her “own voice” through “the experience of being somewhere [and] doing different kinds of work.” Moreover, she found the “ability to step into [her] own writing and be part of the narrative [she was] crafting” to be very fruitful. She was thus able to take ownership of her writing in a way that she couldn’t when she had been working at a critical distance.

Similarly, Alyssa had initially approached the issues and policies around the US-Mexico border with a comparatively narrow academic scope. Working with people on the ground and witnessing them make a big difference with minimal resources, expanded her views and self-understanding.

The experience of being in the field allowed Alyssa to recognize “the possibilities of humanities work.” She learned how to combine her scholarly and activist identities in productive ways. She particularly values the importance of making things that can complicate larger issues and speak to larger audiences.

As she explored postdoctoral careers, Alyssa felt able to more strongly consider the importance of scholarship and digital art in the non-profit sector. Her innovative dissertation project also helped her stand out on the tenure-track job market. As of fall 2021, Alyssa serves as Assistant Professor in the Department of English at the United States Naval Academy.

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