Madison, Wisconsin–May 2017–When Natasha Crooks ’13, PhD ’17, came to UW–Madison as an undergrad in 2008, she never imagined she would still be here nine years late. But Crooks is finally ready to pack her bags as she prepares to move on to a postdoctoral fellowship to continue her research in black women’s sexuality.
Crooks first entertained a career in nursing as a high school student in the UW–Madison PEOPLE program, the residential summer introduction to higher education for high school students of color. “It was the first thing I chose, but I saw myself in it,” she says.
That changed once she enrolled in the school. As a student in a predominantly white school pursuing a predominantly white profession, she did not encounter many other students, instructors or practicing nurses who looked like she did. Crooks began to doubt her decision.
“Suddenly I didn’t see where in any of it I fit in,” she says.
Crooks raised her concerns with her professors, who encouraged her to channel her frustration into a research project interviewing other students about the school climate. She did. Now she considers the project a watershed. “I had an ‘aha’ moment,” she says. “I really saw myself advocating for under-represented students. I realized I could work in the same way on health disparities.”
Fast-forward a few years to Crooks’ dissertation. Still focused on health disparities, Crooks set out to determine why black women experience higher rates of sexually transmitted infections than other populations. Thinking it might have something to do with the sexual maturation process itself, she designed her early research to learn what black women experience as they grow from girls into teens and then adults.
She conducted 20 interviews with black women who shared intimate details about fatherless childhoods marred by sexual trauma, lack of access to reliable information about sexual health, and mixed messages from families, churches and the media.
“I got so much great data,” Crooks says. “Even when I wasn’t asking, they were telling.”
Director of Diversity Initiatives Mel Freitag, PhD, says Crooks’ departure is bittersweet. Freitag worked closely with Crooks to develop a course on culturally congruent care, and Crooks immediately impressed her with a natural poise and ability to work confidently alongside experienced faculty members and administrators.
“I was one of her mentors, but I didn’t see her as a student. I always considered her a colleague in every sense of the word,” Freitag says. “Natasha is fearless. She never fails to ask challenging questions and engage with complex social problems in and outside of the classroom. She has an amazing future ahead of her, and we will miss the passion and innovation she has shared with the School of Nursing for the past nine years.”
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