Her job: advising, teaching and researching. Her vocation: listening, especially to the voices of the poor.
On the left wall of Abigail Borron's office hangs an array of color-coded notes talking about the voices of the marginalized. Some of them are connected with chalked lines. It's a map of her dissertation research on the effectiveness of a Purdue University education program.
Looking at her notes, the theme of Proverbs 31:8-9 emerges:
"Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy."
Borron recognizes that to speak for someone, she needs to first be able to listen, a principle she applies to both her research and her relationships.
Currently, Borron is working on her Ph.D. in Youth Development and Agricultural Education, with a focus on agricultural communication, at the West Lafayette, Ind., campus. Her dissertation research project involves a collaboration with a Purdue nutrition education program to conduct a cultural study of the program's clients--who are often in poverty-- and the university's coordinating personnel.
Borron believes that people who are in need of help often find their voices absent in discussions about their needs. Borron theorizes that programs designed to help the marginalized are often designed without meaningfully assessing the reality of their lives.
The Culture-Centered Approach (CCA), a communication theory developed by Purdue professor Mohan Dutta, is pivotal to Borron's research.
Dutta, who serves on Borron's dissertation committee, explained the principles of CCA in an interview with Purdue University.
"People are often marginalized economically because they are communicatively marginalized," Dutta said. "Because the poor do not have a voice, they do not get a say in the policies that are directed at them by experts who don't really have a clue about the reality of their lived experiences."
Borron's research assesses whether the Purdue program is achieving its goal of reaching underserved audiences with information about nutrition. She wants to see programs designed around what the participants' description of their needs, instead of what outside decision-makers perceive as needs.
Influenced by Dutta's work, Borron began her research by creating a space where she could have conversations with the university program's participants.
Her unflustered, calm demeanor puts interviewees at ease. They trust her because they realize she values their stories and wants to understand their lives.
On a sunny November afternoon, Borron visited an apartment complex to conduct a series of one-on-one interviews. Sitting at a white folding table in the complex's community room, Borron pulled out her audio recorder and invited each interviewee to join her.
"I've got some questions that I just want to ask and I just want you to feel free to talk about whatever comes to mind," Borron said as she began the interview. "There's really no right or wrong answer to anything. I just specifically want to know your thoughts and your experiences"
The participants often looked at her with an emotionless expression, seemingly unmoved by Borron' efforts to get them to open up. But slowly, the conversation turned from talking about fruits and vegetables. Family narratives began to unfold. Borron gained insight into her interviewees as she saw the broken parts of their lives.
"Penny," is a former prostitute, drug user, and alcoholic. She attributes her lifestyle change to God, and explained that she still struggles in some areas of her life. She gained 100 pounds after quitting drugs, a common problem among former drug users, she said. And, her oldest son was recently incarcerated.
"Me having problems with him is hard because today I'm trying to be a parent and it's just hard and it makes you cry, it makes you scream... it makes you cuss," Penny explained. "You know, you love your child so much it hurts down within because you only want what's best for them."
After the interview, Borron opened up her laptop and began to consider how their stories fit into her methodological framework. She pondered how stories like Penny's could shape the way Purdue educates underserved audiences.
When Borron began graduate school, she often found herself frustrated by how the classes missed "the bigger picture" of the Christian worldview. Over time, however, Borron began to shift her approach to research.
"I began to consider, why not let the Lord reveal to me through His Word how to structure research objectives," she said.
Constant exposure to the Bible, and conversations at home and church helped her develop a Biblical perspective on research. The CCA has offered her a clear opportunity to use a research approach that's not Biblical in nature, and meld it with a Biblical perspective.
"I have been amazed at how I've been able to situate social science methods in Truth. I've also been amazed at how God has shown me what it means to love others," she said.
Mark Tucker, Purdue agricultural communication professor and Borron's academic adviser, has worked with Borron since 2006 and recognizes the value of her approach.
"Abigail's work will help broaden the field of agricultural communication. Her methodology is not widely used in our field, but it has the potential to enhance how educators and others engage with new populations," he said.
Borron stands out as a researcher because of her compassionate nature and ability to genuinely listen, Tucker said.
Listening is not only the hallmark of Borron's research, it forms the basis for her relationships with her agricultural communication students as well. Borron strives to build relationships with her students that extends beyond scheduling for classes and job searches. She often leaves the door to her office open, welcoming students to come in and talk.
Jeanne Gibson, one of Borron's students, graduated from Purdue in May and now has a ummer internship at the public relations firm, Osborn & Barr. When Gibson had an internship interview, Borron took her aside after class and encouraged her to be confident in her education and communication skills. Borron's support challenged her to give her all in the interview, Gibson said. When Gibson checked her email later that day, she found a message from Borron in her inbox asking how the interview went.
"Abigail really enriched my Purdue experience with her constant support and encouragement," Gibson said.
This fall, Borron will become a professor at Purdue University, with new students and new research opportunities. But she will continue to live out her Christian faith by fulfilling Jesus' command to "love thy neighbor." And for Borron, loving means lending an ear to someone in need.