International Studies Student Shares Literacy as Oppression Research at Future of Women Conference

  • Syble Heffernan, collaborative research
    Syble Heffernan's research on literacy as an oppression tool in Brazil and Mozambique was shared on an international stage in India where she presented at the Future of Women Conference in February 2020.
  • Syble Heffernan, collaborative research
    Syble Heffernan's research on literacy as an oppression tool in Brazil and Mozambique was shared on an international stage in India where she presented at the Future of Women Conference in February 2020.

Syble Heffernan is an aspiring global citizen.

Having been an exchange student in Brazil, the junior English and international studies major dreams of exploring other cultures and landscapes. And she isn’t waiting.

As a sophomore at Nebraska Wesleyan University, she was presented with an opportunity to present her research in India.

Gerise Herndon, professor of English and director of the International Studies Program, first met Heffernan in her Archway Seminar for first-year students and later in her international studies courses. Herndon recognized Heffernan’s fascination with India and encouraged her to attend the Future of Women Conference held in Bengaluru, India.

To make it a reality, Heffernan and Herndon applied for Student-Faculty Collaborative Research funds that would financially support their research on female literacy rates in Brazil and Mozambique and travel costs to present their research.

“Student-Faculty Collaborative funding for research and creative endeavor can confer crucial experience and advantages for prestige scholarships, graduate school, or future professional research,” said Herndon.

While Brazil and Mozambique are an ocean apart, they bare similar histories. Both were colonized by Portugal, and for these origins, they hold some cultural similarities apart from sharing the Portuguese language. Both have been challenged by low literacy gaps of women and the resulting socioeconomic disparities in the last century.

With Herndon’s initial guidance, Heffernan created a study that was unique and complimented her own experiences.

“I wouldn't have even thought of doing comparative research between two countries. She helped me really narrow that focus,” Heffernan said of her professor. “I was able to converse with her about the concept of literacy, what that even means, and how it is actually used as a tool of oppression by colonists.”

Both Brazilian and Mozambique cultures have developed around oral traditions which stand as alternative methods of telling stories, communicating intelligence and working through discourse within a society. Through colonization and the introduction of conflicting definitions of civilization, there was an urgency placed on the skills of reading and writing to function in society. However, the colonies of Brazil and Mozambique have been challenged in denying women access to these skills. Due to this imbalance in literacy, mobilization surrounding this issue has caused many nonprofits to attempt to close the literacy gaps within rural and urban female populations of both nations.

Heffernan’s findings provided her the opportunity to submit a proposal to present at the Future of Women Conference held in February 2020. The opportunity to present at the conference — especially as a college sophomore — was a rarity.   

“I didn’t expect her to submit a proposal,” said Herndon, “but on her own initiative, Syble conducted independent research — without my assistance and outside the context of any classes she was taking —  and her proposal was accepted. She gave an excellent presentation alongside faculty from southern Africa.”

The conference featured other academics and activists from countries in Asia, the Middle East, and Europe, gathering to share knowledge and advocate for the rights of women and girls.

“Navigating these professional waters as a sophomore was just one of the ways she has demonstrated creativity and maturity beyond her years, “Herndon added. “Her research skills, confidence and the quality of her writing grew remarkably.”

Heffernan’s passion for this project may continue. Treating this study as an introduction to something greater, the junior plans to attend graduate school to become a mental health practitioner to better address the traumas of those impacted by international, socioeconomic disparities like those she found in her own research. Her future plans also include extended travel to Brazil and Mozambique where she hopes to work with nonprofit organizations in their efforts to close the national literacy gaps.

“I don't think I'll have a specific (job) title which I've come to realize throughout college,” said Heffernan. “My vision is a lot of writing, a lot of focus on healing in various contexts. And then a lot of focus on coming together on crucial issues, specifically facing women on a global scale and figuring out how I can amplify their voices and work with them.”


—Story by Danielle Anderson, public relations writer