A&S Class of '24: Spanish Ph.D. Student Lauren Mehfoud Examines Stakes of the Stories We Tell About Drugs

Spanish Ph.D. student Lauren Mehfoud, Jefferson Scholars Foundation portrait.

Lauren Mehfoud grew up in southwestern Virginia amid the backdrop of the opioid epidemic emerging near the turn of the 21st century. “Breaking Bad,” “Narcos” and other TV shows about the fictional and real exploits of drug kingpins were captivating American audiences when Mehfoud began studying Spanish as an undergraduate student at Virginia Tech.

She became intrigued with how differently stereotypical drug trafficking narratives were depicted on the screen versus how the contemporary opioid epidemic was being chronicled.

“That’s how my worlds collided,” said Mehfoud, who went on to pursue a Ph.D. in Spanish as a Jefferson Scholars Foundation fellow, with a focus on Latin American literary and cultural studies at the University of Virginia, in the Department of Spanish, Italian and Portuguese. This spring, she successfully defended her dissertation exploring key moments in the development of antidrug policy in Mexico and Colombia and is graduating in May.

“When I started college, I knew I wanted to study language and was considering teaching as a career path. During that time, I became interested in Latin American literature, film and television and in how the lens of cultural studies lets us think not only about the stories they’re telling but about how those stories shape peoples’ lived realities.”

She credits the Department of Spanish, the Graduate School and the Jefferson Scholars Foundation for the funding support she’s received to travel to Mexico City and Colombia for archival research. Those trips have already yielded several published papers in prominent publications, including a 2023 article in the Journal of Latin American Cultural Studies about the connections between mining, climate change, and popular portrayals of Colombia’s drug war, such as the 2018 film “Pájaros de Verano” (Birds of Passage).

Mehfoud’s dissertation examines the rhetorical strategies employed to transform certain plants into “drugs” and people into “traffickers” and “addicts” through the lens of literature, film, television, visual art, and archival sources.

A workshop offered within UVA’s “PhD Plus” — the University initiative preparing graduate students for long-term career success — encouraged her interest in also writing for broader audiences beyond academia. The lessons she learned within the workshop also led to a June 20, 2023, op-ed column in The Washington Post examining the historical lessons from a 1940 Mexican experiment with treating drug addiction for U.S. legislators increasingly interested in treating drugs as an issue of public health.

“I’ve had some incredible mentors at the University of Virginia. There are so many brilliant scholars. Having Assoc. Prof. Anne Garland Mahler as my adviser has been a really formative experience for me,” Mehfoud said. “To have someone who's really willing to take the time to listen to my ideas and help me develop them, to help me find my voice and to encourage me to travel, write and publish in these different venues has made a big difference.”

During her years of graduate study at UVA, Mehfoud also volunteered in the community as a translator with Sin Barreras (Without Barriers) and other organizations serving the area’s Spanish-speaking immigrant population. Mehfoud will continue on Grounds this fall as a postdoctoral Jefferson Scholars Foundation fellow, teaching Engagements seminars within the College’s general education curriculum for first-year students.

“I think what defined my experience here was discovering a question that I'm interested in exploring and then finding a mentor who wanted to help me answer that question,” Mehfoud said. “If there is one thing I would want to offer to the first-year students that I'll be teaching next year in my Engagements course, it’s helping them to identify that question or passion that inspires them as well.”


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