Coincidence, Connection, Convocation, and Collaboration

by Professors Sara Cumming (Sociology) and Jessica Pulis (Criminology)

We don’t meet people by accident, they’re meant to cross our path for a reason

It was September 2001 in a small seminar room at Brock University that two of our FHASS faculty met for the first time. Sara Cumming was a second year student in a Sociology of the Family course led by a fourth year teaching assistant, Jessica Pulis. The course required the students to write a research paper that included one sociological theory.  Sara booked a meeting with Jessica to discuss the paper as she was struggling to decide which theory would be best to apply to her paper on the division of household labour.  During this meeting Jessica convinced a sceptical Sara that she needed to come from a feminist perspective, and she unknowingly sparked a passion for feminist studies of gender inequality.

The two women had not kept in contact with each other after the course. Jessica graduated from Brock and went on to do her Master’s degree in Criminology at the University of Guelph. Sara finished her undergraduate degree and remained at Brock to do her Master’s in Social Justice and Equity Studies. In September 2005 Sara and Jessica’s paths crossed again.  While at orientation for her doctorate program at the University of Waterloo, Sara discovered that Jessica was also in the same program. Sara had since written two theses using a feminist lens and had always wanted to thank Jessica for her initial guidance. Not surprisingly, Jessica always wanted to tell Sara what an amazing impact she had on her trajectory into grad school and future aspirations to become a professor. Although the two women were at the same school they were at very different points in their degrees, had different supervisors, and as a result never really had a chance to collaborate.

Drs. Pulis (L) and Cumming (R) convocate from the U of Waterloo (Photo: Sara Cumming)

Drs. Pulis (L) and Cumming (R) convocate from the U of Waterloo (Photo: Sara Cumming)

Sara and Jessica’s lives continued on eerily similar paths continually intersecting over the next ten years of their lives. Sara started contract teaching a variety of sociology courses at Brock in 2006 and Jessica was hired to teach criminology courses in 2007.  In 2008 both women were also hired to teach courses at the University of Waterloo. While working full-time, completing their PhDs and raising their children, Jessica and Sara finished the first drafts of their dissertations within four weeks of each other. During the revision stage, Jessica was hired at Sheridan College as a Professor of Criminology in January of 2013, and, fortuitously, Sara joined the Faculty as Professor of Sociology in August 2013.

Continuing on their parallel paths, this past spring Jessica and Sara successfully defended their PhD dissertations 18 days apart and graduated together from the University of Waterloo on October 18th, 2014. Jessica’s dissertation entitled “Set up for failure? Understanding probation orders and breaches of probation for youth in conflict with the law” examined non-custodial sentences for young people in Canada. Little is actually known about the judicial use of probation, the conditions that are imposed as a part of this sentence and, more importantly, what factors are associated with breaches of probation. Breaches of probation have historically been, and continue to be, significant pathways back into the youth justice system, especially incarceration. Using informal social control theory (wider social processes) and an integrated sites of oppression lens (an analysis of marginalized populations) the research explores the factors that influence the nature and extent of probation sentences and disparity in the use of probation sentences for female and Aboriginal youth.​

Sara’s dissertation, “Lone Mothers Exiting Social Assistance: Gender, Social Exclusion and Social Capital,” explored the experiences of a diverse sample of thirty lone mothers participating in Ontario Works, the provincially-mandated work-to-welfare program. Each lone mother was interviewed annually for a series of four interviews.  Additionally, focus groups with caseworkers provided insight into the lone mothers’ processes of attempting to leave social assistance, highlighting the differences between program design and program delivery. The results indicated that there was no predictive factor; no profile emerged of the lone mother most likely to achieve independence. While many women exited social assistance, few did so because of financial independence. The results pointed to substantial inadequacies in the provincial work-to-welfare programming in addressing the particular needs of lone mothers.

And now, post-PhD, Jessica and Sara have become life-long friends, sit in side-by-side offices at Sheridan’s Trafalgar campus, and are planning to finally ​collaborate on a shared research piece.