Isabel Munoz

When Covid-19 hit in 2020, the pandemic forced the world to find a new way to work and live. For marginalized communities, the impact of the global crisis may have added a layer of change. In situations such as Covid-19, people with marginalized identities may face exacerbated historical issues related to them as members of a marginalized community. Understanding how these marginalized communities navigate crises is part of Isabel Munoz’s studies as a Ph.D. student researcher at the iSchool.

Before attending the iSchool, Munoz completed her bachelor’s and master’s degree at the University of Wyoming. Even though she formally studied communication, she’d always been interested in technology and how people use it. She became fascinated with website design and how design could promote social justice groups or social causes. To achieve her goals, Munoz felt she needed a more technical background to understand how technology can impact lives.

“As a Latina, I think there’s a lot of opportunities for technology to help our communities, especially marginalized communities,” says Munoz. “That’s why I thought the iSchool would be a great place to go. It’s very interdisciplinary, and I could get a more in-depth education in how technology impacts us and how we could use it to our benefit.”

Through her Ph.D. studies, Munoz is researching a few topics with different marginalized communities. Munoz is an active member of the Human Centered Computing + Design Lab.  Under the direction of faculty members Bryan Semaan and Brian McKernan, Munoz is working on a project about marginalized identities and how they’ve been affected during COVID.

“Some marginalized groups have experienced exacerbated challenges, like the Asian communities increasingly fighting hate crimes. And not just COVID, but concurrent crises like the Black Lives Matter protests,” shares Munoz. “For this project, we’ve decided to focus on two specific things. One is learning how people have experienced concurrent crises and how marginalized groups deal in this time, like what challenges they’re facing. We’re learning that a lot of these people have a pretty positive outlook and a lot of them are very involved in certain, what I would call them, activist activities. They’re sharing posts on social media that are trying to educate people. And they’re trying to have conversations with people to give them a diverse perspective. We’re in the middle of reviewing all that data right now. So, there’s nothing concrete yet, but that’s where we’re headed.”

“The other thing we are looking at is we’re finding people’s world views have changed a lot during COVID,” says Munoz, “Again, everybody has a different outlook in life, but a lot of these aren’t necessarily just due to COVID. There’s a lot of things that impact how people are changing their worldview. We’re kind of starting to see how those things have unfolded.”

Beyond understanding the challenges marginalized communities face during crises, Munoz also wants to find ways to build up those communities, mainly through professional development. “I’m really interested in professional development and how we can use technology to help these communities through professional development,” says Munoz. “So, in addition to the work that I’m doing with Bryan Semaan and Brian McKernan, I’m also working with Steve Sawyer to understand the gig economy. Who has access to these opportunities? How does that kind of work fit into this whole ecosystem? And how do marginalized groups use these gig platforms to build their identities?”

The marginalized communities Munoz works with go beyond race or ethnicity. Munoz is also performing research with Assistant Professor Josh Introne to study the impact of online social support for people living with HIV. “We’ve been able to go to Kentucky and work with people living with HIV to develop an app,” says Munoz. “Just being able to meet people in person, being able to do fieldwork, that has been huge. And getting to earn people’s trust because talking about HIV and stigma-related issues can be difficult. So that’s been huge too.”

Munoz’s interest in marginalized communities comes from personal experience. As a Latina, Munoz feels inspired to bring her community up with her. “If you’ve made it this far, I think it’s important to open the doors and help the next generation, and just inspire the next group of people to continue.”

The love for building community is in part what drew Munoz to the iSchool. Part of her role in building community comes as the Graduate Program Assistant and Mentor for SU WiSE (Women in Science and Engineering). The program serves female students, faculty, and staff at all levels in the STEM departments at Syracuse University through events and professional development activities. 

“Building a community, getting in with the faculty you like to work with whose work aligns with what you want to do, I think that’s really important. It’s about building a community,” says Munoz. “Not only faculty, but you want to get involved with other students, other programs. I love the people that I’ve worked with, and I think the iSchool is a pretty neat space because you get to meet a lot of different people and work with them.”