A community service-focused summer in the Mississippi Delta as a Robertson Scholar more than a decade ago first sparked Alexis Dennis’ interest in how social stratification generates differences in health and well-being. That interest has driven her for the past 14 years of research.
And on May 7, Dennis will graduate with her Ph.D. from the College of Arts & Sciences’ sociology department as a triple Tar Heel, ready to take her work on health disparities to the next level. Dennis will be among the doctoral candidates to have their degrees conferred Saturday at the University’s Doctoral Hooding Ceremony at the Dean Smith Center.
‘In great hands’
Dennis, who graduated with a master’s degree in public health from the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health in 2014 and a bachelor’s in communication studies in 2011 from the College of Arts & Sciences, continued visiting Mississippi during her summers as an undergraduate and completed an honors thesis based on her time there.
She then worked at the University’s Carolina Population Center for a summer, and a year later enrolled in the Gillings School of Global Public Health to study HIV and reproductive health. After two years at the Duke Global Health Institute post-graduation, Dennis returned to Carolina in 2016 to pursue a Ph.D. in sociology and research racial health disparities and mental health.
“I chose Carolina each time for different reasons. I came to Chapel Hill as an undergraduate for a really great opportunity to be a Robertson Scholar,” Dennis said. “I came for my master’s because of the funding for the program, and I returned for my Ph.D. for the chance to work with my advisor, [Howard W. Odum Distinguished Professor] Robert Hummer in sociology. He’s a phenomenal researcher, but also just an excellent mentor and person, and I knew that I would be in really great hands if I came and worked with him.”
Dennis’ Ph.D. thesis directly ties back to her time in Mississippi and examines the racial and ethnic differences in the socioeconomic processes that link those differences to depressive symptoms across early and mid-life.
“It was really that first summer working in rural Mississippi that set me on this career path towards public health and population health,” Dennis said. “And now I’m starting to see the trends I’ve studied unfolding in my own life.”
Dennis cited a statistic she learned in a demography class during her first year of her Ph.D. program that Black men die an average of four years earlier than white men, especially beginning in their fifties.
“My parents are now around that age, and it’s crazy how many family friends we’ve lost in the last six years when those friends were in their fifties or sixties,” Dennis said. “Seeing statistics and research manifest in my own personal life has made me even more committed to continuing my work.”
A decade in Chapel Hill
Dennis says her experiences at Carolina shaped more than just her research. She’s made indelible memories during her 12 years as a student at UNC-Chapel Hill, spanning from 2007 to 2022.
“I remember rushing Franklin Street after President Obama won in 2008, and what was unusual was that unlike after a basketball win, it was almost silent as we all just stood together,” she said. “Somebody had an old school boombox with a radio that they were holding up over their shoulders, and everybody listened to his acceptance speech at the corner of Franklin and Columbia.”
She said she’ll miss the people of Chapel Hill after she is conferred with her regalia hood on Saturday morning, but she plans on keeping in touch with the faculty, staff and friends she formed relationships with during her time at Carolina.
“I have formed lifelong friends and mentors during my time at Carolina, and I’ll miss the beauty of the campus, especially spring when the weather is perfect, and everyone gathers outdoors,” Dennis said. “I’m already looking forward to coming back for visits.”
Dennis will depart Carolina for a new adventure: joining McGill University in Montreal as an assistant professor of sociology. The chance to live abroad and learn another language attracted Dennis to the position, as well as the new perspective to study racial disparities in health in a cross-cultural context. The short flight time to return to Chapel Hill or Atlanta, where her parents live, was a draw, too.
“I’ve seen a lot of change at Chapel Hill, but I’ve also seen a lot of things remain constant, too,” said Dennis. “I’m really appreciative because I think that my time at Carolina and the relationships that I’ve built really formed me as a scholar and the person I’ve become. I look forward to paying that forward to the students in the next steps of my career.”