Doctoral student finds inspiration in citizenship and inspires with mentorship

Litzy Galarza (left), with fellow Summer Research Opportunities Program co-directors, Sri Rao (middle) and Nakisha Whittington. Credit: ProvidedAll Rights Reserved.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State graduate student Litzy Galarza immigrated to the United States from Mexico when she was 6 years old. She gained an interest in the government of her new country, and by high school was working on fully understanding how it worked.

Journalism was a natural path to a role in American politics, and Galarza envisioned working as a political correspondent for a news outlet. She majored in journalism and political science at the University of Arizona and developed her skills as a copy editor for the student newspaper, the “Daily Wildcat.”

“I was solely focused on journalism in college,” she said. “I really liked it, but I felt I wasn’t ready to be a full-time journalist after graduation."

After calling Phoenix, Arizona, home for most of her life, Galarza modified her career path and moved to Columbia, Missouri, to get a master’s degree. She kept studying journalism, but theory and media studies began taking up much of her time.

“I was getting farther away from practice,” Galarza said. “My thesis wasn’t even on journalism.” Instead, her master’s thesis was a critical analysis of the television show “Jane the Virgin.” It was much different than her dreams of becoming a reporter, but it foreshadowed what was coming up next for Galarza.

An assistant professor at the University of Missouri, Cristina Mislán, who is a Penn State alumna, helped solidify Galarza’s decision.

“For me the academic path was really odd,” she said. “But Cristina Mislán was one of the only Latina professors I’ve ever had. I never really had Latina professors to look up to.”

Taking one of Mislán’s classes and seeing her teach and inspire students taught Galarza that “Latina women can be professors.”

Today, Galarza is in her fourth year as a doctoral student at the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications at Penn State. She is writing her dissertation, which is continuing to examine “Jane the Virgin,” looking at the “discourses of citizenship and belonging on the show.”

“Jane the Virgin” aired from October 2014 to July of 2019. It was the longest running U.S. English-language network television show with a Latina title character.

Although it’s a satire that parodies telenovelas, the show “engaged in issues relevant to the Latino culture, like identity, culture and citizenship,” said Matt McAllister, professor of communications and Galarza’s graduate adviser. “It also aired during an important era in the United States concerning immigration.”

The dissertation will include interviews with industry representatives, analyze fan commentary and study the TV program’s content over its 100 episodes in five seasons.

“Not all television shows are equal, and ‘Jane the Virgin’ was enduring, critically acclaimed and had a loyal following,” McAllister said. “Litzy will highlight the ways the program integrated messages about citizenship and entertainment.”

The concept of citizenship fascinates Galarza. As a naturalized citizen, she notices how Latinos are presented in the media. She says it’s an understudied and undervalued area, and it’s important to know how media have an impact on how people in the United States view “who is a citizen and who is not.”

Due to preconceived notions and a dearth of Latino representation both on- and off-screen, Galarza says stereotypes materialize. It makes her think about her own life and how she is often seen as a foreigner by others — despite being a U.S. citizen.

“It’s complicated,” she said. “There are millions of Latinos who are U.S.-born, but because of these discourses in the media, most Americans don’t make that connection.”

Galarza has been focused on one particular character on the show — Jane’s grandmother. Over the course of the show, the grandmother, Alba, goes from undocumented, to having a green card, to becoming a U.S. citizen. Galarza said she can’t think of any other program that has shown the immigration process from beginning to end.

“It’s important because it shows the average American what that process looks like,” she said. “That moment is important to me, because it reminds me of my grandfather and the people in my family who have undergone that process. It’s one of the pivotal moments and why the show is important to me.”

Galarza became a naturalized citizen in 2015. She was living in Missouri at the time. She asked for the ceremony to be moved back home to Arizona. She wanted her family to be there, plus “Missouri was a steppingstone,” she said. “It wasn’t home.”

Immigration officials were understanding, and Galarza’s family was able to be there when she became an U.S. citizen. It was an experience she called “an important moment of identification.”

Now at Penn State, Galarza has become an accomplished researcher. She has earned top student paper awards and has presented at numerous conferences, including seven research presentations in 2018 alone. She has taught several courses, including international communication and communication law. McAllister said she is “devoted to scholarship.”

“Litzy is going to make an impact on the field and continue to influence students with her excellent teaching,” McAllister said. “Her research is exciting, and her students praise her for her caring and even-handedness in class.”

Mentorship has become immensely important to Galarza. Collaborator Paulina Rodriguez said Galarza values her time in front of the classroom and pushes her students to think critically about the world.

“She places a high degree of importance on the mentoring aspect of her job,” said Rodriguez, a graduate student in the Department of History. “Litzy is passionate about the work she takes on and it shows.”

During her time at Penn State, Galarza got involved in the Summer Research Opportunities Program, an experience that helped build a community while living in State College. She is the co-director of the program, which is housed in the Office of Graduate Educational Equity.

SROP hosts about 30 undergraduate students from across the country and exposes them to professional development workshops, seminars and field trips. The students are matched with faculty members and the groups conduct research together. Graduate students are involved too.

“This program is important to me because it gets undergraduates into the mindset that they can be scholars,” she said. “It’s a recruitment tool for Penn State, but for me it changed the trajectory of my life. I just happened to apply for it, and now I know that I want to mentor and get to know students. I want to give back to the communities that I came from.”

Last Updated June 14, 2021