First-Gen Faculty: James Doucet-Battle (Assistant Professor, Sociology Department)

[Photo credit: Gwynn Benner]

James Doucet-Battle was born and raised in Rochester, New York. His father worked for the Air Force and his mother was employed at Eastman Kodak. 

 “Recent research shows that only 1 in 11 African American public school males graduates from high school in Rochester,” he said. “And there were some extremely brilliant people in my neighborhood. Many of them would have made it much farther than I have.” 

James' mother insisted on sending him to a highly regarded private Catholic school. The professor of sociology remains forever grateful to his family for their sacrifices, though he also acknowledges his struggles in a segregated environment where he was made to feel keenly that his true potential was not recognized. 

“I think I was seen as more of an athlete than a student,” James said.

His guidance counselor was his track coach, who never brought up the subject of college once, despite James’ avowed love of learning.

James said he is most appreciative of the librarians at the school, who gave him the space to read for hours on end about history, comparative religion, and political science.

James’s journey from Rochester to UC Santa Cruz was driven by a love of his subject material. He is a medical anthropologist and is currently busy working on a book about the recruitment of African Americans in Type II diabetes research.

He doesn’t view his journey toward a full-time faculty position as one of overcoming a series of challenges, but rather as being presented with a series of what he calls “creative opportunities.”

“I viewed it as a series of choices,” he said. “And one of those choices was coming to California.”

After graduating high school, James journeyed to Santa Cruz via New Mexico, pursuing an intense interest in Ayurvedic medicine. That passion carried him to India and Sri Lanka before he landed an interview with a professor at San Jose State University who specialized in ethnobotany, thus precipitating a quantum leap forward in James’ academic career.

After graduating from San Jose State in just three semesters, and obtaining an M.A. in History and Anthropology, he was selected as a Ronald McNair Scholar. James then pursued a joint Ph.D. at the University of California, Berkeley and the University of California, San Francisco in the Joint Medical Anthropology Program.

After gaining his Ph.D., James was selected as a UC President’s Postdoctoral Fellow at UC Santa Cruz and then became a professor.

“I didn’t think I was UC material,” he said, joking that he used to believe people who were accepted into Berkeley and UC Santa Cruz were adept at the piano by age 2 and publishing academic papers before the age of 10.

But James said this lack of confidence is the one thing he would tell his students to avoid, particularly those who are the first in their family to attend college.

“Don’t ever say ‘no’ to yourself,” he said. “Let the world say ‘no’ to you.”

James said it is about confidence on the one hand, but also about the courage to recognize your intellectual inclinations and to follow them doggedly.

“I think that a diverse faculty, particularly first-gen faculty, can show students that their passion is not a dead end, but a pipeline through which they too can pass,” he said. “When you get interested in an idea or a topic for which you acquire a passion, you can see real possibilities for creating a positive future that includes you.”

James said the First-Gen Faculty campaign is important in that it allows all students, such as those that hail from low-income backgrounds or underrepresented minorities to envision themselves as full participants in the scholarly community.

“The goal of a diverse faculty is not something hovering over a distant horizon,” he said. “It is within our reach. Our students are the ones who will contribute to achieving that goal.”