Meet New Assistant Professor, Dr. Tawandra Rowell-Cunsolo

The Sandra Rosenbaum School of Social Work is thrilled to welcome Assistant Professor, Tawandra Rowell-Cunsolo, to campus (virtually) and to the school this fall! Dr. Rowell-Cunsolo was previously an assistant professor in the Columbia University School of Nursing. Please join us in welcoming Dr. Rowell-Cunsolo.

Tawandra L. Rowell-Cunsolo
Dr. Rowell-Cunsolo

Hometown: I was born in South Bend, Indiana, but my family moved to Aurora, Colorado when I was in elementary school, so that is where I really grew up.

Educational/professional background: B.A. in Law & Society and African American Studies, Purdue University; M.A. in Criminal Justice, Rutgers University-Newark; PhD in Social Welfare from the University of Pennsylvania

Previous position (title, institution): I was previously an Assistant Professor in the Columbia University School of Nursing.

How did you get into your field of research? I’m pretty sure it was by accident. Around the time that I started graduate school, the HIV infection rates had begun to skyrocket, becoming the number one killer of Black women in the U.S. Incarceration rates were also dramatically increasing among Black men and women largely due to the “war on drugs.” These issues sharpened my interest in exploring the intersection of health and the criminal justice system, which led me to one of the largest maximum-security correctional institutions in the country!

What attracted you to UW-Madison? I almost pursued doctoral training at the university, so I was already aware of their reputation for executing high-quality research and a supportive learning environment. I was really drawn to the possibility of working alongside researchers with overlapping interests and the prospect of working in a truly collaborative community.

What was your first visit to campus like? Cold! On the second day of my trip, the temperature was in single digits, so it was extremely cold! Like a bone-chilling cold. However, everyone was so nice and welcoming that it allowed me to forget about the cold for a bit. Some of my trip is still a blur – I was extremely nervous but comfortable at the same time (seems strange now!) – I just remember getting really excited after listening to faculty members discuss their research interests. Everyone seemed genuinely passionate about their research area.

What’s one thing you hope students who take a class with you will come away with? I would love for my students to feel more confident about their ability to understand local and national discussions (and policies) on substance use. I’ll be teaching courses on substance use, which is always a timely topic. I hope that they learn the skills to confidently present their point of view. I would like them to be active rather than passive participants on current issues and controversies surrounding substance use.

Is there a way your field of study can help the world endure and recover from the COVID-19 pandemic that has affected the health, finances and lifestyle of so many? My research is broadly focused on the intersection of health and the criminal justice system. The population that I study tends to reside in under-resourced communities which have borne the brunt of COVID infections. I am certain that COVID-19 will emerge as a significant contributor to stress and displacement among those from marginalized communities. By bringing awareness to the nature of social conditions that accelerate the spread of COVID-19 among vulnerable populations, I am hoping that we can begin to develop sustainable strategies that will provide some form of protection from future pandemics.

Do you feel your work relates in any way to the Wisconsin Idea? If so, please describe how. I’m interested in addressing health disparities and widespread disparities that exist in Wisconsin. Designing effective solutions to address persistent disparities in this area requires a comprehensive and multidisciplinary approach; this cannot be accomplished solely within the confines of the academy. Rather, it requires a collaborative approach which includes input and support from many entities, including those from diverse communities, the policymaking arena, and other stakeholders.

What’s something interesting about your area of expertise you can share that will make us sound smarter during video chats (and eventually parties)? I have been exposed to many conversations about the advantages of marijuana legalization efforts. However, people typically do not like to discuss the health consequences associated with marijuana use. Also absent from these conversations is the knowledge that even though marijuana usage rates are similar for Black and White Americans, Black Americans are much more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession. This is regardless of whether they reside in a state where marijuana use is legalized. This might sound a little intense for a video chat or social event, but how can I not discuss it?

Hobbies/other interests: I love to travel (especially to tropical locations), which has been curtailed due to Covid-19, but I look forward to resuming my plans in the future.