Nicholas DiRago on the ESJ Project

Author: Nick Dirago

January 30, 2020

Why did you apply to be an ESJ Fellow? How did the fellowship fit into your broader education and interests at Georgetown? 

I applied to the ESJ Project because it was an unusually autonomous and challenging research opportunity for an undergraduate. ESJ allowed me to build on an existing interest in Latin American politics and society and conduct research in Spanish for the first time. ESJ provided a venue to connect my involvements in social justice work more directly to my academic pursuits than coursework usually did. No other experience at Georgetown married these two interests so effectively.

What did you study through the ESJ Project? What are some of the larger takeaways from your research? 

I compared curricular design and socioeconomic integration between Colegio de la Inmaculada, an elite preparatory school, and Fe y Alegría, a network of schools that deliver popular education to students from families on the margins. 

My research suggests that in Peru, segregation between elite academies and popular education is only partially an artifact of broader social stratification. It is also an explicit and durable, albeit constrained, choice by professionals who design Jesuit education. This finding made me consider the roles of pre-university educators and institutions in shaping demographic imbalances at Georgetown and other elite private universities.

How did you change during the course of the ESJ Project? 

ESJ helped me come to understand research as a vocation. Carrying out an original research project and arriving at novel findings brings out the difference between being a good student—not a unique quality among Hoyas—and a calling to research. This is especially true for young adults, myself included, who did not grow up in environments in which being an academic or research professional was a common career or professional ambition.

What is your current occupation? How did your involvement in the ESJ Project inform your career choice and graduate study? 

I am currently a doctoral student in sociology at UCLA. ESJ was a formative step in my journey towards a career as a social scientist and prepared me to produce the quality of research expected at a top department. To this day, I frequently think back to an exchange in which one of my ESJ advisors warned me that I was designing my project and framing research questions as if I already knew the answer. This feedback, which graduate students regularly receive and struggle over, opened my eyes to a core challenge of social science: fusing a critical mind and prior knowledge with humility, rigor, and a sense of wonder about the world around us.

Nick DiRago