Early life experiences shape the academic paths of many professors, but few find their research as directly connected to their roots as Jay A. Pearson, assistant professor at the Sanford School. Disparities across cultural groups and consequences of ethnic identity formation are not only the focus of Pearson’s research; he has experienced them firsthand.
Pearson grew up in Murfreesboro, N.C., a small town in the heart of tobacco and cotton country. Born into a family of tenant farmers and sharecroppers, Pearson experienced challenges common in the rural agricultural south.
“For the first seven years of my life, we didn’t have power or running water,” said Pearson. Electricity came first, when Pearson was 7 years old, followed by running water when he turned 11 and his family moved into a trailer park.
“You know you come from a rough place when a trailer park is an upgrade,” he said with a laugh. “Back then, I didn’t know we were poor. But I could conceive of there being something different.”
Growing up in rural northeastern North Carolina, racial assignment mattered. Pearson’s mother identifies as black American, and his father identifies as black Indian. While Pearson attended public school, the majority of affluent white youth in his town attended private school.
In sixth grade, Pearson was sitting in a social studies class learning about the history of Thanksgiving. The teacher had asked students to describe something that they were thankful for that year.
“I said I was happy that one set of my ancestors wasn’t enslaved anymore and that the other set of them wasn’t being senselessly killed,” said Pearson. The teacher sent him to the principal’s office.
“Something clicked for me then,” Pearson recalled. “It caused me to question the world I lived in and the stories I was being told in the classroom, which were different from the stories I had heard from my father and uncle.”
During this time Pearson also began to consider the value of formal education and how it could alter life opportunities. In eighth grade, he attended a state student council meeting where, for the first time in his life, he met peers who openly discussed their college aspirations. But his journey to higher education proved daunting.
“I was not a good student,” said Pearson. “I had always read everything I could get my hands on, but I didn’t think some of my teachers were particularly smart. I didn’t study, and I didn’t always pay attention in class.”
Pearson began taking his studies more seriously in high school, but work made it hard to focus on his academics. He had worked part-time since he was ten, starting out cutting watermelon and later working a paper route, at a fish market, a produce packing house and seasonal farm work.
Nevertheless, when a teacher encouraged Pearson to take the SAT, he attained the highest score in the history of his school at that time. Colleges started calling, and Pearson accepted an Air Force ROTC scholarship to become the first in his family to attend college. NC Central University, his school of choice, did not have its own ROTC program, so Pearson joined the Duke-NCCU ROTC program, attending classes at NCCU and coming to Duke to train twice a week. However, “a lack of social integration across the schools” prompted Pearson’s departure from the ROTC program toward the end of his junior year.
“I like to believe I quit,” Pearson said, “but I might have been kicked out.”
From ROTC to Public Health Education
He changed his major from computer science to community health education, attending summer school and staying an additional year to complete the required coursework. Upon graduation, he joined the Peace Corps in Honduras, training midwives and village health workers on nutrition, oral rehydration and respiratory health issues. His stint in the Peace Corps gave him time to think about broader social contexts and the factors that lead to varied life chances for different societal groups.
When he returned to the States, he worked as a health educator with the East Coast Migrant Health Project in West Virginia, Virginia and Florida. He later designed and implemented health and safety training for Spanish-speaking factory workers, pesticide safety training with a multi-ethnic farm worker population and lead poisoning prevention in a low-income urban community in Durham, N.C. After completing a master’s degree in public health at UNC, Chapel Hill, Pearson returned to migrant health serving as a program coordinator and health educator for migrant and seasonal farm workers.
Graduate work heightened both his fascination and frustration with the social determinants of health and structural inequality, leading him to pursue a doctorate at the University of Michigan in health behavior and health education. His dissertation explored links between socioeconomic status and health in the context of racial categorization, ethnic identity, discrimination and alternative socio-cultural orientations.
While at Michigan, Pearson found a mentor in Sherman James, a leading social epidemiologist who came to Sanford in 2003 as the Susan B. King Professor of Public Policy.
“During my first semester there, I took a class with [James] that changed my world view,” said Pearson. “He is someone whom I admire a great deal and have tremendous amount of respect for.”
Working at the University of Michigan Population Studies Center, Pearson served as assistant project director of an NIH-funded research study on racial differences in telomere length and their association with chronic urban stressors. The experience narrowed his research focus to race, ethnicity and the social determinants of health differences.
Pearson’s current projects examine gendered health differences associated with immigration to the United States, as well as the value of using variable race and ethnicity designations in academic studies. He is also developing a typology of race, ethnicity and national origin for social science research on health outcomes.
Who You Are, Who You Become
“My father thought it was very important for my brother and me to understand that we were both black and Native American,” Pearson recalled. “But when we moved into an all-black trailer park, the kids there let us know in no uncertain terms that we were black. And in Honduras, I learned about skin color gradations and color status, and I got to be not black, but trigueno.
The fluidity of ethnic identity remains relevant to Pearson’s daily life. As a fluent Spanish speaker working in migrant health, Pearson has been asked by colleagues if he is Puerto Rican or Cuban. Others, who know him only by name, have assumed he is Jewish.
“These experiences raise questions about whether the way people see you, the way you see yourself and the way you relate to others affect access to resources that can enhance life changes or insults that can compromise them,” he said. “I have a unique set of gifts that allowed me to navigate the impediments to success that I had to [navigate]. I would like to contribute to creating a society where those impediments are reduced if not eliminated.”
The need to represent a diverse range of voices is becoming increasingly important, said Pearson. “In today’s sociopolitical environment, it is more critical than ever to represent voices that are not traditionally well represented,” he stressed. “We have difficult decisions to make about who we are as a nation, and at the same time, we’ve become increasingly polarized.”
Reflecting on his role in this dialogue, Pearson described himself at the crossroads of firsthand experience and formal training.
“I’m in a unique position,” he said. “Not only do I have firsthand insight into and understanding of how these social mechanisms operate and personal knowledge of what it takes to successfully negotiate them, I also have the formal training to translate and disseminate this knowledge to a broader population. And given that most people have only one or the other, I have an obligation to do this work.”