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Conference success ignites a fire for social justice

May 24, 2019

KOKOMO, Ind. –  Standing at the front of the crowded conference room, Elena Cadenaz had the “aha” moment of her college career.

The Indiana University Kokomo senior had just finished presenting her research project at a regional conference, and was successfully answering questions about it when she realized how the four years leading up to the presentation prepared her for it.

“I really saw what the purpose of college was,” said Cadenaz, who graduated in May. “That was the moment I saw myself being able to take what I learned in my classrooms, from all of my professors, and effectively communicate what I learned. It was the most powerful moment of that trip. It was a good feeling that all my hard work was starting to pay off.”

Cadenaz presented her research on awareness of human trafficking at the North Central Sociological Association (NCSA) annual conference in Pittsburgh in 2018. The NCSA is a regional sociology association including Eastern Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ontario, Canada.

She attended as part of a senior seminar led by Stephanie Medley-Rath, assistant professor of sociology. Medley-Rath encourages students to present at this conference because it is larger than their usual campus audience, but small enough, with a few hundred people attending, to not feel overwhelming.

“It challenges them to get out of their comfort zone pretty significantly,” Medley-Rath said. “It gives them a really great sense of accomplishment, from doing this really hard thing they didn’t think they were going to be able to do.”

Cadenaz’s project explored how aware people are in north central Indiana about human trafficking, and how likely it is to happen in their area.

“My research was about informing people that human trafficking doesn’t just happen in bigger cities or developing countries,” she said. “It happens in rural areas and developed countries as well.”

She was surprised to find that children, especially runaways, are targeted by people who would sell them into forced labor or sexual slavery.

The experience ignited a passion for social justice in Cadenaz, for starting conversations about issues that are hard to discuss.

“It definitely lit that fire for me,” she said. “That day, it was a conversation about how we as a society and individuals in that room, plan to stop or prevent human trafficking. It inspired me to keep doing this kind of work.”

She channeled that energy into planning and hosting a panel discussion, Why I Didn’t Report, with experts in the area of law enforcement, mental health, reaction to trauma, and sexual assault prevention, on campus.

“I wanted to empower people, by giving them the tools to talk about this topic,” she said. “I think it scares people because they don’t know how to talk about it. The more we have this discussion, the more people will know, and the more help they can offer to survivors, to help them heal.” 

The skills she gained at IU Kokomo prepared her for the leadership goal at the panel discussion, and for future success.

“My freshman year, I might have messed it all up because of nerves and inexperience,” she said. “I felt very confident and prepared standing at the front of that room. I also feel more aware of what’s going on in society, and it’s important to me to share that information with others, to make a difference. I have the tools to do that now.”

Medley-Rath’s senior seminar members attended the conference as part of the IU Kokomo Experience and You (KEY) program, which emphasizes learning through doing. The four-year program includes opportunities for foreign and domestic travel, hands-on research experiences, art retreats, and career networking events, among others.

Indiana University Kokomo serves north central Indiana.

Last updated: 05/24/2019