Dr. Maria Alcívar-Zúñiga wins 2022 Karas Award for Outstanding Dissertation

May 11, 2022 - by Sarah Igram

Dr. Maria Alcívar-Zúñiga, an alumna of Iowa State’s Human Development and Family Studies, is a winner of the 2022 Karas Award for Outstanding Dissertation. Named for Dr. George Karas, retired former Associate Dean of the Graduate College, this accolade is given every year to honor students in rotating disciplines.

Photo of Maria Alcivar-Zuniga


Alcívar-Zúñiga, who now serves as the Executive Director at the Iowa Coalition Against Domestic Violence, focused her dissertation on the strength and resilience of Latinx immigrant parents in Iowa in the context of restrictive immigration policies, anti-immigration climates, and legal violence. She received a grant from the Mid-Iowa Health Foundation and from her home department for this project.

To conduct her research, she recruited 15 participants who were born outside the U.S. and had at least one U.S.-citizen child under 18 years old living with them. All 15 participants she spoke with lived in Iowa. After interviewing each participant and collecting and coding data, she found that each of them had experienced legal violence, the negative outcomes of restrictive immigration policies, either directly or indirectly. However, these participants also drew upon internal, cultural, and familial strengths to not only survive, but to thrive despite hostile policies.

“The most rewarding part of my dissertation was getting to connect with Latinx parents across the state and learn about their histories, lived experiences, motivations and dreams,” she said. “There were a lot of painful truths that were shared, but also plenty of beautiful anecdotes and stories of strength and resilience.”

Alcívar-Zúñiga first came to Iowa State as an undergraduate transfer after her aunt, herself an Iowa State alum, recruited several family members to attend the university. Alcívar-Zúñiga earned her bachelor’s degree in 2011 and her master’s degree in 2017. While she initially did not plan to get a doctorate, she found a mentor in associate professor Tera Jordan, who encouraged her to pursue her Ph.D.

Writing her doctoral dissertation came with challenges, including impostor syndrome and postpartum baby blues. To stay productive, Alcívar-Zúñiga would focus on other tasks, such as checking her formatting, when she had difficult writing days. She also took advantage of Iowa State’s available resources, including the Graduate College’s Center for Communication Excellence.

She successfully defended her dissertation in the winter of 2020, and her committee members described her work as one of the best and most impactful dissertation projects they had read in their careers.

“Community and social service providers, institutions, and leadership across the state of Iowa can use this research to identify the strength that Latinx families bring to our local community and society in general,” she said. “Researchers, policymakers, and all Iowans can lead changes to create and equitable and welcoming state that enables everyone to thrive and supports the next generations of Iowans.”

As the Executive Director for the Iowa Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Alcívar-Zúñiga continues to lead change by guiding efforts to make quality advocacy and service more accessible for victims of violence. She is honored to see her hard work lead to the 2022 Karas Award.

“It certainly validates the arduous work done,” she said. “It is a win for myself, my research, and a win for the undocumented immigrant community and Latinx parents who participated. ¡Si se puede!

Tags: human development and family studies, academic awards, alumni, karas award