As Commencement is upon us, several of our Eberly College graduates reflect on their time at WVU and their plans for the future. Keep checking back through Friday, May 14 to meet all of our featured grads.Meet Julia Wolf, WVU’s first sociology PhD graduate.
How did you choose your major?
As an undergraduate, I was originally an applied forensic science major at Mercyhurst
University. I wanted to solve crimes by performing autopsies like the main character
in “Bones.” However, I also had an interest in psychology and eventually wanted
to understand why people committed crimes in the first place. I started considering
becoming a cop or joining the army, so I added a joint minor in the psychology
of crime and justice to my curriculum. I evolved from wanting to solve crimes after
they happened to wanting to stop them before they happened.
I soon became interested in finding out not why individuals committed crimes but why certain areas had more crime than others. I didn't realize it at the time, but I was slowly going from individual-level thinking to population-level thinking. I found sociology as the field I needed to pursue in order to answer to my big-picture questions. I transferred back home to Case Western Reserve University. However, there were some miscommunications during my transfer, and I missed the window to sign up for some classes I wanted. I ended up in a class about health, wellness and social behavior. After a few weeks into the class, I was glad I ended up there and eventually switched my main focus from crime to health. I consider myself an interdisciplinary population health scientist—sociology is my main field, but it is intertwined with psychology, public health, demography and other r elated fields.
How would you explain your major to an incoming student? What advice would you give them?
Sociology allows you to study the world from the micro-level (e.g. individuals and how they interact with one another and society), the meso-level (e.g. communities, neighborhoods, local institutions like schools, etc.) and the macro-level (e.g. national policies, systems, etc.). It gives you tools and thinking skills that allow you to view the world from multiple perspectives. It helps you critically analyze why we live the way we do and what has historically contributed to it.
Sociology is broad and covers topics like crime, health, gender and sexuality, race and ethnicity, media and sports. I would advise an incoming student to take introduction to sociology and then other sociology classes that interest them (or that don't! They might be surprised as I was by taking a class I didn't want to but ended up loving it).
Be prepared to have the ideas of how you think the world works to be challenged and to be open to genuinely reflecting on that. It took me a while to wrap my mind around the new ideas I was being exposed to for the first time, having grown up in a conservative Catholic family. However, I've since improved my ability to critically analyze situations and consider what cultural, social, historical and political factors have contributed to them.
Sociology is also a great complementary field to have experience in while pursuing other majors. I strongly recommend anyone mainly interested in pursuing another major to still take a few sociology classes. The critical thinking skills gained from sociology courses can easily transfer into any career.
How has your Eberly College of Arts and Sciences education helped you prepare for unexpected circumstances, like the pandemic?
My recent focus in sociology has been on health and wellness. I have been attending the Interdisciplinary Association for Population Health Science conferences for the past few years. Having such a background in population health and sociology has helped me understand the ways in which the virus can spread throughout populations due to the human need for socialization. I can also understand the economic toll shutting down areas and businesses can take as well as the increased mortality and illness
risked by not shutting down. I understand the way science learns about new things by generating hypotheses, testing them and getting results—that it's typically a slower, iterative process that evolves as more information is made available. I understand the political tensions in reacting to something unknown. I understand that there are populations that are more vulnerable to coming into contact with the virus than others. I understand the need for action at the individual level and at the population level for stopping the spread of the virus. My specific education has prepared me well for understanding the pandemic in particular, and I believe my critical thinking skills can be transferred to other unexpected circumstances.
What was your most memorable moment at WVU?
I've had several memorable moments during my time at WVU. I was a poster session award winner at my first Population Association of America annual conference in 2016 and presented there in 2017. I helped arrange the Southern Demographic Association's conference in Morgantown with my advisor, professor and former department chair Lynne Cossman, in 2017. I won the Most Outstanding Graduate Student Researcher Award from my department in 2018 and a Provost’s Office graduate fellowship for 2017-2020. My last year before the pandemic was filled with many trivia nights with a couple of program friends that continued on Zoom during the pandemic.
Do you have a favorite professor or other faculty members who inspired you?
I want to give a shout out to Chris Scheitle who has been supporting me on all of my committees and to Lynne Cossman who has been my adviser since day one and has been a fantastic mentor.
We recognize that life is topsy-turvy right now because of the COVID-19 pandemic. How are you planning to celebrate graduation, even in nontraditional ways?
I plan to walk at graduation as long as proper safety protocols are upheld. I will be fully vaccinated at that point and will continue to follow other protocols, such as wearing a mask and maintaining social distance. I will celebrate with my immediate family back home as well and have been connecting with friends and family over social media.