Through Service and Research, Class of 2020’s Ozanam Scholars Explore Issues of Social Justice

St. John’s Ozanam Scholars Program is a highly selective, academic initiative that combines service, research, and global learning. Through the program, scholars examine and seek solutions to real-world social justice issues, travel around the world to serve those in need, and complete a capstone project during their senior year. In this series, we look at Ozanam Scholars from the Class of 2020 and the impact each has made on society. 

J’mi Worthen posing with Commencement yard sign
June 29, 2020

J’mi Worthen

For J’mi Worthen, a biology major in St. John’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, with minors in social justice and international studies, the aspiration to become an Ozanam Scholar came from a deep desire to explore social justice at a higher level. 

“I knew that, as an Ozanam Scholar, I would be pushed outside of my comfort zone in order to teach me lessons that I could not learn in a traditional classroom setting,” she said. “I needed a space to question why society functions the way it does.” 

The Ozanam Scholars Program provided J’mi with that space, while inspiration for her capstone project came from an unexpected place.

“My brother, Jalen, and I were watching a baseball game and when it went to commercial, I asked him if he had seen any black people in any of the ads,” she recalled. “He told me that he had not seen any since we started watching the game.” 

That initial observation was a catalyst for further exploration—which revealed a dearth of black female roles in the media and countless racial stereotypes—and became the cornerstone of her capstone project, “The Portrayal of Black Women in the Media.”

“I wanted to analyze the understanding of positive versus negative portrayal of black women in the media,” she said. “My research sought to answer the question, ‘How does the portrayal of black women in the media shape the perspectives that black women in a university setting have of themselves?’”

J’mi Worthen standing with a bouquet of flowers
J’mi Worthen

Under the mentorship of Laura McCalla ’18Ph.D., an assistant adjunct professor in the Department of English, J’mi explored that question through intensive investigation, which included two focus groups. 

J’mi’s original plan was to collaborate with different organizations on campus and host a yearly event about her research. However, Dr. McCalla encouraged J’mi to think bigger and turn her findings into a college course. 

“She took me under her wing and allowed me to observe her classes for two semesters,” she said. “From that exposure, I was able to take the data from my focus groups and format it into a proper course, which will be available at St. John’s during the Spring 2021 semester.” 

“J’mi is by far one of the most intelligent, hardworking, and empathetic students that I have ever encountered,” said Dr. McCalla. “Her research shows that she has a keen mind and is extraordinarily capable of identifying a specific problem, working to better understand every facet of the problem, and then implementing a solution.”

While J’mi’s research focused on media in this country, her service work took her around the world. “I had the privilege of working at a rehabilitation center in Puerto Rico; a women’s shelter and elementary school in Rome, Italy; an indigenous community in Ecuador; and a hospital in Ghana,” she said. 

Closer to home, she volunteered at Project ID at St. John’s Bread & Life in Brooklyn, NY, where she assisted clients in the retrieval of documents such as birth certificates, death certificates, and nondriver identification cards. “I also worked with Homes for the Homeless youth after-school program in Queens, NY, and GEAR UP in Long Island City,” she said. There, with other Ozanam Scholars, J’mi created a college prep program for juniors at Long Island City High School

“J’mi’s research reflects a commitment to her community from which she is not easily dissuaded when she is faced with obstacles or detractors,” added Dr. McCalla. “I am so incredibly honored to have mentored such an amazing young woman and cannot wait to see what she does next.”

While she graduates from St. John’s with a degree in biology, J’mi’s experience as an Ozanam Scholar has inspired her to pursue a career as a mental health professional. She is in the process of applying to graduate school.

“All of the work that I have done with the Ozanam Scholars Program gave me the courage to change my original plan and continue my work in the field of social justice,” J’mi said. “I knew that my beliefs would be challenged in the program—that was what I needed to develop a broader perspective, as well as be able to stand firm in my core values.”