UMass doctoral student awarded Soros Fellowship

By Marie MacCune

Flickr/Steve Garfield
Flickr/Steve Garfield

Mike Alvarez, a communications Ph.D. candidate, was recently one of 30 finalists awarded the Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans. Alvarez, originally from the Philippines, was the only fellow studying communications.

According to the Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans website, the award is for “New Americans” pursuing at least two years of graduate work. Each fellow can receive up to $90,000 in tuition and stipend assistance for graduate education received in the U.S.

According to Alvarez, his work focuses on cyber suicide and the stigma surrounding mental illness.

“I want to raise awareness,” he said. “From my own experiences, I know it is difficult to talk about suicide. A lot of times it touches on a previous loss for people or on their fear of death. I want to open a dialogue.”

Alvarez explained, “Cyber suicide is suicide that is mediated by the Internet. It can take many different forms. One form is through live feeds, when someone broadcasts their suicide live. Another is making suicide pacts online. Complete strangers, when they feel that life is unbearable, decide on a time and place to meet – or at least a common time if they cannot meet – and commit suicide together,” Alvarez explained.

According to Alvarez, this has made people wary of the Internet.

“Cyber suicide is a phenomenon with two halves,” he said. “The Internet is either seen as something dangerous and a cause of suicide, or as something that can be used as a tool to prevent it.”

When asked about how he became interested in the topic, he said, “Before I became a Ph.D. student, I was a psychology undergrad at Rutgers University. But I like to call myself a psychiatric survivor. I was in and out of the revolving door of mental illness. I even contemplated and attempted suicide.”

In terms of his research method, Alvarez said his “work transgressed many different disciplines.”

“I don’t rely on one method,” he said. “At UMass, my work is two things: One is looking at online memorials created by parents of those who have committed suicide and analyzing the posts and comments on the sites; the second is that I’m also analyzing the depiction of suicide through film.”

“I’m trying to bring to light the subject of suicide, which is something people really don’t touch,” Alvarez said. “There is such a veil, such a curtain, of silence. And I can use my experiential understanding to give back to society, to breach that gap between what is happening and what is being talked about.”

According to Alvarez, he chose UMass because of the diverse set of opportunities it offered.

“What really attracted me was that the faculty and students are doing interdisciplinary work. Of course we work within the field of communications, but it is such a diverse field and we pull in information and skills from so many other focuses. I really saw a lot of potential in that. I don’t want to be limited by one field,” he said. “And the faculty here at UMass have such amazing backgrounds and a lot to offer to their students.”

About his time in the program so far, Alvarez said, “It’s been great. The faculty, the students – it’s funny, but those are the only words I have. It’s been cool, it’s been really great.”

Marie MacCune can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @MarieMacCune.