COLUMBIA, Mo. (Oct. 19, 2022) — On Friday, Rokeshia Renné Ashley, Ph.D. ’18, will return to the campus and community that played host to two of the most important milestones in her life: her doctorate from the Missouri School of Journalism and the birth of her daughter, Emery Ashley.
Those two events are intertwined for Ashley — now an assistant professor of communication at Florida International University — who will accept the Mizzou Black Alumni Emerging Trailblazer Award this Friday for her community-driven research into maternal health and body image in Black women. During her second year of study, she became bedridden for a full six months of her pregnancy due to an incompetent cervix, a complication responsible for nearly 25% of second-trimester miscarriages. Not only did she ultimately give birth to a daughter, but she finished her doctorate in three years, an efficient accomplishment with or without a pregnancy in the mix.
Though she worried at first that her team of mentors, advisors and instructors would not understand what she was going through, she quickly found a dedicated support group in her dissertation committee and the graduate studies program.
“Classes were either online or would allow me to come when I could — they wanted me to win,” Ashley said. “And then when I had my baby, they were there even then. They set up a meal train to make sure I had food every day. I’m so grateful for them, because they really made sure that I finished and did whatever they could to support me.”
Research imitates life
Ashley is driven to succeed, as her perseverance in the doctoral program clearly shows, but she also takes care to listen when life nudges her in a different direction. Small but significant details, like the fact that the time of her daughter’s birth on Good Friday — 3:05 a.m. — matches her hometown area code in Florida’s Miami-Dade County, don’t go unnoticed. Likewise, her research focus on Black maternal health stems from her challenging and at times traumatic pregnancy experience.
Another area of her research deals with body image and the practice of skin whitening in the Black community, and this, too, has its origins in personal experience: As her daughter grew and began attending school, Ashley noticed the emergence of a negative attitude about her skin color. In order to promote body image positivity and counter the notion that Black and brown girls should stay out of the sun to maintain a fair complexion, Ashley wrote SunFlower Child, a children’s book that follows a Black girl as she spends a day outside in an inner city.
Much like the School of Journalism’s Missouri Method, which prioritizes hands-on experience in many different elements of journalism and strategic communication, Ashley brings an impact-centered approach to academia. Emphasizing subject matter that has had significant influence on her own life and those of others in the communities she serves has led her to early success in her career.
“Few junior scholars in our field are eminently good at all aspects of our profession, and I am in absolute awe of her efforts and accomplishments,” said Yong Volz, who chaired Ashley’s dissertation committee. “She continues to excel and further expand her research impact both within and across academic disciplines as well as in the public domain.”
Ashley also named Amanda Hinnant, Sungkyeoung Lee, Cristina Mislán and Earnest Perry as important influences during her time at the School of Journalism. While Perry was not part of her dissertation committee, she fondly remembers his counsel and recalls spending one Christmas with him and his family when she was unable to travel.
“Rokeshia is a rising star in her field and I’m very proud of what she has accomplished,” Perry said. “She was an outstanding student and has been a very successful strategic communication educator and scholar.”
But as the award she will accept on Friday highlights, Ashley is a trailblazer, and she is always thinking about new ways to make her work more impactful at a time when accurate and nuanced health communication is more important than ever.
“I want to use popular press and social media platforms to produce health information that encourages body autonomy while giving people correct information to help them make healthy decisions about their bodies,” Ashley said. “It’s about putting that information into more accessible forms that are relevant to the communities we want to serve.”
Updated: October 26, 2022