Aja Witt attended the University of Iowa where she received a BA in Journalism & Mass Communication and a BA in African American Studies in 2018. She received her MA in Journalism & Mass Communication, and a graduate certificate in African American studies, from the University of Iowa in 2021.
Her research interests include sports media, social media and activism, mental health, cultural studies, feminist theory, and critical race theory. Her research focuses on the American athlete and the democratizing power of Black Twitter.
Q: Why did you pursue graduate school / become a researcher?
A: I didn’t know that I wanted to be a researcher until my final year in undergrad when I was working on my honors theses. Writing those papers was probably the most challenging thing I had done in college up to that point, but it was also the most rewarding when I completed them. That taught me a lot about myself as far as resilience and addressing social issues in ways I hadn’t considered before. I wanted to chase that high, so to speak, that I received from researching something, learning its history, and writing about it in a way where other people would want to read it.
Q: Describe your research in non-expert language?
A: My research focuses on sport, social media and culture, or the relationship between sport/sports fans, race, and gender in our society. My research centers professional basketball, so the WNBA and the NBA, and, because those leagues are predominately African American, I get to study the Black community—specifically through Twitter.
Q: What impact has your work had on the field/world? What impact do you hope to have on your field/world?
A: I’m still very young in my career as a researcher, but I hope to continue strengthening the relationship between Black Twitter and sport. Most of the current research over Black Twitter does not focus on sport, which I believe is a missed opportunity to highlight Black voices and experiences in an area where Black people are often most visible. I would expect more research to engage the Black community, sport, and society following the summer protests of 2020, and I want to be a part of that.
Q: What programs or resources (on or off campus) have influenced or supported your academic goals?
A: The Women’s Resource & Action Center (WRAC), and University Counseling Service have been amazing for me; I honestly don’t think I would have earned my master’s without them. Graduate school can be frustrating and isolating at times, so when you combine that with the ups and downs of life, things can get hard. Counseling was a godsend for me.
Q: Do you have any role models, mentors, or inspirational people who have encouraged you to pursue your work?
A: I was fortunate enough to have had several UIOWA professors encourage me to not only pursue a graduate degree, but also to explore multiple areas of interest while I was discovering what I ultimately wanted to research. Travis Vogan and Jennifer Sterling were two of the first professors to mention graduate school to me in undergrad, so I’m very grateful to them. Michael Hill, Venise Berry, Kajsa Dalrymple, and Damani Phillips were, and continue to be, extremely helpful to me, both professionally and personally, as I navigate grad school. I’ve tried to model these people’s work – in Journalism, African American Studies, and Sports Studies – in my own research.
My family didn’t push me to earn my master’s—I’m the first person in my immediate family to pursue an advanced degree—but my sisters and brothers have remained supportive, and I love them for that.
Q: How has your graduate experience shaped your career goals?
A: I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started grad school, so I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how much I love teaching. I’m a Leo, so I’ve always secretly—sometimes not so secretly—enjoyed having all eyes and ears on me, but teaching also allows for this indescribable feeling of happiness when a student finally gets it. When I read a paper or grade an exam where someone’s showing off what they’ve learned, or what I’ve helped teach them, that’s what makes me happy. No matter what path my life takes career-wise, I want to continue teaching.
Q: If you could go back to a time at the beginning of your graduate career, what advice would you give yourself?
A: I would tell myself to cut me some slack. You don’t always have to be the best, everything you produce doesn’t need to be perfect, and you’re in grad school to learn, so learn. It’s easy to try and compare where you are in your work to the work of scholars around you because society has more-or-less taught us to be in constant competition with one another; those comparisons aren’t necessary or at all helpful. Remember to grow at your own pace.
“You’re doing amazing, sweetie!”