Wendy Laybourn was drawn to higher education from a very early age. “I always knew I wanted to go to college,” said Laybourn–a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Sociology. “It represented a search for things that interested me.” At first, she discovered those topics to be educational inequalities, and how race factored into related challenges.  Those passions remained with Laybourn throughout her academic career, and have inspired both her scholarship and her involvement in a number of social movements to promote justice and combat racism.

After completing her B.A. in Sociology at the University of Memphis, Laybourn recognized that Sociology helped satisfy her strong desire to gain and use information to answer complex societal questions. “The world made sense for the first time. Whatever I focused on or was curious about became a very rewarding process of recognize, diagnose, and determine the next steps.”

During and after college, Laybourn worked at a local nightclub. Inspired by the field of sociology, and armed with an appreciation for the interconnectivity of humans and the environments that surround them, she began to explore the nightclub environment. Laybourn saw the clubs as venues for social and gender interaction that were unique in their importance to the music-loving community–not only for entertainment, but also for status. She observed music’s importance in that social space, and was captivated by the thought of how the nightclub scene influenced music, and vice versa. As time went on, she became further interested in how rap music reflects racial ideologies and how the dynamic between producers and consumers of rap music is impacted by racial interactions. 

“I felt a need to push against the popular narrative offered by music critics. More than just exposing the commercial aspect of music, I wanted to illuminate it and help people understand that music is not free from societal issues,” she said.

She visited the University of Maryland–one of six schools she had applied to for graduate school. The decision to stay was almost immediate. “I met other graduate students from all over the university, including Sociology. Everyone was collegial and seemed to share a sense of belonging and community,” said Laybourn.

She cites her access to faculty as one of the most valuable aspects of the Department of Sociology. “Faculty was always available to me, and extraordinarily supportive of my interests, even if they differed from the faculty’s own research. The faculty seemed focused on refining my own concepts and goals by applying academic rigor and sound methodology, as opposed to molding my interests to fit theirs. I couldn’t develop an idea that the faculty wouldn’t support and help me improve.”

Among other topics, Laybourn’s research looks at drug- and alcohol-related content, and how its prevalence in rap lyrics is correlated to rankings on popular music charts. Her initial studies did not discover a direct correlation between the content and rankings, but the results did reveal other fascinating connections.  Laybourn found that artists’ skin tone was associated with the rankings; artists with lighter complexions ranked higher on rap music charts, despite having equal or more drug- and alcohol-related content in their lyrics, than darker skinned rap artists. 

“I want to challenge what we think about race and multiculturalism. For example, trans-racial adoption,” said Laybourn, who is from a multi-racial family. “When we’re examining these families, we should be moving past just the racial aspects and looking at family progress. Exploring the intersections of race, power, and identity. Unpacking our own deeply held beliefs to learn about phenomenon and their drivers.”

Asked about her participation in a recent series of demonstrations promoting racial equality and justice, namely surrounding the #BlackLivesMatter mission, Laybourn explained the relationship between her academic work and the importance of community involvement. “Right now we all have the opportunity to fight for justice in how people are perceived and how people are treated, not only as it pertains to interactions with law enforcement and the legal system but across multiple institutions like housing, banking, education and so on. If we actually believe in equality and justice for all, then we must actually do something to ensure that reality,” said Laybourn. “Being involved with Black Lives Matter is one way that I continue my commitment to critically engaging with race and exposing racism, not only in my scholarship but also alongside minority communities.”

Illustrating this obligation, Laybourn readily quoted Parren Mitchell, the first African-American elected to Congress from Maryland in 1970, a founder of the Congressional Black Caucus, and the first African-American to obtain a graduate degree from the University of Maryland. “If you believe in fighting racism, you make a commitment for the rest of your life. There’s no getting off that train. You can’t say, ‘I’ve put five years in fighting racism and now I am finished.’ No, you are not finished. Our job is to fight it every day, to continue to shove it down and when it rises up to shove it down even harder.”

Reflecting on her experience at Maryland and in the Department of Sociology, Laybourn freely offered advice to undergraduate students who seek to make the most of their academic careers.

“Network, most importantly with your instructors. At an institution like UMD, faculty can really set you up for success,” she said. “Learn and grow, of course…but challenge yourself so that you might learn about you, and not just about topics.”

She also shared what she believes to be critical advice for graduate students. “Reach out to people. Faculty, peers at other institutions, those doing research that interest you or aligns with your own. Do not wait for connections and opportunity to simply come to you. Expand your networks beyond social media platform like LinkedIn, as only so much can be accomplished virtually. Finally, open your senses and allow your atmosphere to influence your work. With mentors like those I’ve benefited most from, it can really transform your experience.”

Wendy Laybourn headshot