Josie Zenger remembers walking through the doors to her new high school in Queens, New York, and immediately feeling out of place. Having recently moved from Boston to the inner city, Zenger was acutely aware that she didn’t know any of her fellow classmates and wasn’t familiar with the processes of the new school.
In high school, she saw the academic and college-preparation struggles of students who lived below the poverty line and knew she wanted to participate in efforts to relieve educational struggles exacerbated by poverty. “I learned a lot about social class, inequality, and stratification firsthand, and specifically the way that education can impact communities,” Zenger said.
After graduation, she investigated a handful of colleges but felt prompted to attend Brigham Young University, partially due to her desire to be surrounded by students who shared high moral standards. Being the only member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in her high school made Zenger excited about the prospect of attending a university that was both “spiritually strengthening and intellectually enlarging.” Her desire to enroll at BYU deepened as she learned that students had many opportunities to do research during their undergrad years.
In an international development class during her freshman year, Zenger connected with anthropology professor Greg Thompson, who invited her to participate in research for Provo’s South Franklin Community Center, a hub for locals to learn new skills and improve their quality of life. There, she measured the efficacy of different programs and designed interventions. Zenger and a team of students presented their findings at a conference about the impact of tutoring on students in the Provo area.
As part of her research with Thompson, Zenger has interviewed over 60 BYU students to understand their backgrounds and perspectives. “Everyone has a story to tell,” she said. “I feel very strongly that it’s a sacred experience to learn about people and hear what they have to say.”
"Seeing how faculty and administrators are willing to invest time in me has been an essential component in shaping the kind of person I want to be, both in my career and personal life."
Zenger has also done research for the BYU Careers and Experiential Learning office to maximize the allocated resources for minorities on campus and has worked as a research consultant designing research methodology for the BYU Office of Belonging.
Thanks to these inspiring learning experiences outside of the classroom, Zenger said she’s impressed by the efforts BYU is taking to make belonging a priority for all students. “Something I’m really appreciative of is how open professors and administers are to this issue,” she said. “Every person I have talked to has been generous and open and really motivated to say, 'What can I do to help?’ Belonging and community require sacrifice, and it requires sacrifice from everyone.”
Recently, Zenger’s hard work was recognized when she was awarded a Wheatley Institute Scholarship after being nominated by Thompson. The scholarship will provide her with funding for her final year as an undergraduate sociology student at BYU and two years of graduate school.
“Professors have done a lot of bridging, connecting, and opening doors for me,” she explained. “Professors asked what they could do to support my research interests. Seeing how faculty and administrators are willing to invest time in me has been an essential component in shaping the kind of person I want to be, both in my career and personal life.”
At BYU, Zenger found belonging by helping others feel recognized, and she’s eager to continue working to help build a community envisioned by the BYU Office of Belonging, where “hearts are knit together in love.”
“Learning about the experiences of students and applying that knowledge to improve their lives and BYU as a whole has been super meaningful to me – the most meaningful experience anyone could have here,” she said.
With an eye toward the future, Zenger is completing a summer internship at Ashoka, one of the largest social impact measurement organizations in the world. After that, she is eagerly looking forward to returning to BYU to finish her degree and her work for the Office of Belonging. Inspired by the professors and experiences she’s had at BYU, Zenger plans to pursue a career in research and to continue to serve and empower underrepresented groups.