Kishauna Soljour: The First of Many

Kishauna Soljour: The First of Many

SU's first African American woman to receive a Ph.D in the history department wins a national dissertation award.
Published: February 8, 2020
Kishauna Soljour receives The Council of Graduate Schools/ProQuest Distinguished Dissertation Award in Humanities and Fine Arts. Pictured L to R: Mary Farmer-Kaiser, Kishauna Soljour and Francois Soljour.
Kishauna Soljour receives The Council of Graduate Schools/ProQuest Distinguished Dissertation Award in Humanities and Fine Arts. Pictured L to R: Mary Farmer-Kaiser, Kishauna Soljour and Francois Soljour.

Kishauna Soljour is the first Syracuse University recipient of the nation’s most prestigious honor for doctoral dissertations: The Council of Graduate Schools/ProQuest Distinguished Dissertation Award in Humanities and Fine Arts.

Discovering her passion

From a young age, Soljour was an overachiever. From excelling in French as a seventh grader to attending a private, preparatory high school in Connecticut essentially set her up for success; even though she still had underlying self-doubt. As one member of a 54-student graduating class, Soljour applied to Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications with uncertainty about getting in. As a current intern at BET, Soljour was accepted into the top communications school in the country and entered as a Broadcast and Digital Journalism major in the fall of 2009, but not for long.

“I hated it,” Soljour said. “I froze in front of the camera – my first time in front of the camera.”

Soljour changed her major to Television, Radio and Film, which allowed her to be behind the camera, she also decided to dually pursue a bachelor’s degree in African American studies and participated in Paris Noir – a summer study abroad program sponsored by SU’s Department of African American Studies. She received two master’s degrees in history, and began her journey toward her Ph.D., which she earned May 12, 2019.

While abroad with Paris Noir, Soljour conducted an independent research project, where she discovered a lack of Black, female journalists in France. Shifting gears, she spoke to Black women with media platforms such as blogs, to discover how they were filling the void of Black women in the media which led her to not only a “passion project,” but her dissertation, years later.

“Someone told me, ‘this is great work, this hasn’t really been done, you need to keep doing it,’” Soljour said.

The Dissertation

Even after traveling and studying in Bollywood, Soljour kept falling back into the African American experience in Paris. Soljour kept finding Black, French people with stories to tell from different angles, and she found that she was the person to do so. Her dissertation, “Beyond the Banlieue: French Postcolonial Migration & the Politics of a Sub-Saharan Identity,” was earned with distinction and was named the all-university doctoral prize.

Soljour’s dissertation committee consisted of five professionals, who read and analyzed the research she conducted. Jeffrey Gonda, the committee chair, was also Soljour’s adviser over the course of her six years in her Ph.D. program.

“She was not only exceptionally talented, but I think of somebody who saw the larger mission and purpose of the work that she was determined to do, but also somebody who was intensely motivated and had the resilience needed to navigate a Ph.D. program,” Gonda said.

Gonda recalled his check-in meetings with Soljour, remembering her work ethic, putting in a multitude of hours and carrying a “wildly large” workload at the start of her graduate program. On top of the maximum number of credits in the semester, she’d still be asking for additional readings. Soljour also challenged herself by studying in Paris for a semester while still taking classes and conducting research.

Janis Mayes, who was also on Soljour’s committee, is also the founding director of the Paris Noir program that Soljour participated in.

“When I think of Kishauna, I think of goodness,” said Mayes. “I think of someone who has a very clear sense of the values that are important to her and Black people. Her quality of mind is rich. She’s thorough, she works hard.”

Mayes acknowledges that Soljour’s work fills gaps of research of a time period that hasn’t been fully explored about the African Diaspora. She said that Soljour’s work carry its own weight and she believes that one won’t be able to look at African Diaspora and/or French history without looking at Soljour’s work when it’s published.

“She travels – not only in terms of place to place, but she’s willing to travel in her ideas,” Mayes said. “She never takes the easy way out and always has tried to make sure that she was doing what she could do to make things better inside or outside of the classroom.”

Dr. Kishauna Soljour, at her May 2019 graduation.
Kishauna graduated from SU with her Ph.D in 2019.

Beyond ‘Cuse

As a 2019-20 Robert B. Menschel Public Service Fellow, Soljour has found her passion within nonprofit work and non-governmental organization work as well. Currently, Soljour’s year-long fellowship with Stamford Public Schools involves consulting with the district to revamp their African American Studies and Latino Studies curriculums. Soljour completes rotations in three high schools: Stamford High, Westhill High School, and AITE High School, which is a magnet high school specialized for STEM work. At these schools within the areas of curriculum and assessment, Soljour looks at what schools are doing regarding state and federal mandates to make sure they’re up to par and all students are ready for college-preparatory courses. With this fellowship, it’s shown her that the K-12 realm is where she would like to make an impact.

“In order for us to gain more students of color in higher academia, we have to start in K-12,” Soljour said. She wants to ensure that not only can these students matriculate, but also have support while doing so. On the other hand, Soljour had found herself straddling the fence between teaching on the university level or her current work; but feels a deeper commitment to seeing that students can get to university settings.

As a 2019 Forbes Under 30 Scholar, at the annual summit Soljour attended workshops and programming for “For(bes) the Culture,” the organization’s diversity and multicultural initiative. Soljour notes one of the workshops truly being her “aha moment,” giving her comfort in the current phase of her life. The workshop, “The Only One,” was filled of other people of color who are in their careers with no one around who looks like them and hearing panelists and attendees alike, Soljour realized she wasn’t alone in this battle.

“The idea is that even though you’re the only one, make sure that you make room for people coming behind you,” Soljour said.

Oftentimes, Soljour was the only African American in her classrooms while studying for her Ph.D. This fall, two African American women entered into the Maxwell School at Syracuse, pursuing their Ph.D.’s in history as well. They occasionally check-in with Soljour about how things are going and will have more constant communication once they finish their Ph.D. coursework and enter independent study, as it’s less guided.

Soljour has a piece of advice for others who feel alone on their journeys of trailblazing in their various pathways in life, advice she applies to her own life:

“Knowing that even though you’re the first, make sure that you aren’t the last,” Soljour said.

Kishauna Soljour at the Forbes Under 30 Summit
Soljour attending the Forbes annual summit for Forbes Under 30 Scholars.