Mason doctoral student wants her voice to inspire others


Losing those around you to acts of violence and prison is a difficult reality to accept, yet one that is all too familiar to Briana Davis, a first-generation student in the second year of her PhD in communication at George Mason University.

Briana Davis portrait
Photo by Ron Aira/Creative Services

“I used to always think, how could we be in the same classroom and have the same teachers, but have two separate ways of life?” said Davis, who is originally from Norfolk, Virginia. “I’ve lost a lot of classmates and friends from back home to prison and gun violence. I think about what they didn’t get to do, and the opportunities they didn’t get to have. I’ve got the opportunity so I want to do it for all of us.”

After graduating from high school, Davis chose to enroll at Radford University, where she earned a BS in communication studies. After completing an MA in strategic communication from High Point University, Davis spent two years teaching sixth-grade and first-grade students in North Carolina.

Her teaching experience made her eager and willing to get a new perspective on communication, so she moved back to Virginia and applied for a PhD at Mason.

Davis said she was attracted to Mason and the Communication Department because of the faculty she’d have the opportunity to work with and learn from, and said she often feels that she is treated more like a colleague than a student.

“These are by far my favorite set of faculty and professors that I’ve had in all three schools,” Davis said. “I felt like with this program I would have the opportunity to explore what it is about communication that I’m the most passionate about.”

Davis also teaches COMM 101 Fundamentals of Communication, also known as inclusive public speaking, to first-year Mason students.

Her research interests stem from her background and hometownan urban, low-income environment with mostly Black and brown bodies.

“Once I got to see the world differently, especially when I attended Radford University and High Point Universitytwo predominantly white institutionsI started to see the difference in opportunity,” she said. “That pushed the growth on my focus toward marginalized identities, with race, gender, and class in mind.”

She has since shifted her focus toward instructional communication in the educational side of communication due to her experience in teaching.

“In the two years I spent teaching, the first year was at a Title I, urban school and the second at a grade A school,” Davis said. “I could see the substantial learning differences that took place in the discipline policies, the academics, in the students’ behavior, and the teachers’ approaches which stirred my interest into instructional communication.”

Davis also spent time exploring different methods of conducting research such as quantitative research, qualitative research, and critical methodology.

She is currently working on a research project that explains how trauma is present in education through the different disciplinary policies seen in various types of schools. One example she cites from personal experience is a school policy known as “silent lunch” that can be seen as a negative reflection of the school imposing it.

Emily Brennan-Moran, assistant professor for the Department of Communication, is Davis’s advisor. “Briana has a clear sense of the stakes of her research. She wants to make the classroom a less traumatic, more equitable place, particularly for young students of color,” Brennan-Moran said.

One of the bigger pieces of Davis’s research revolves around the “white savior” concept” and how these identities matter when it comes to learning. Davis presented on the topic with her abstract “What the White Savior Forgets to Save” at the 2023 Mason Graduate Interdisciplinary Conference.

“I have an opportunity to use my voice and deliver messages that resonate with people to look at life in various perspectives,” Davis explained. “Public speaking also gives me the opportunity to use my voice and be a voice for people who look like me.”

Richard T. Craig, director of the master’s program in communication and associate professor, who served as Davis’ advisor during the 2021-22 school year, describes her as a very talented scholar who can take complex concepts and make them relevant to her audience.

“Briana consistently looks at the means in which she can use her research to help the learning processes/environments of children from marginalized groups,” Craig said. “I like to think for my part I am a positive influence on Briana's development, particularly as a qualitative/critical scholar, I can certainly attest she has been a positive influence on me.”

In Fall 2020, the day after she submitted her application to the PhD program at Mason, Davis received an email that she had qualified for the Graduate Inclusion and Access (GIA) Scholarship.

“When I applied to the GIA scholarship and received it, I was told it is a very competitive scholarship that was open to new PhD first-generation college student applicants in need of financial aid,” Davis said. “When I read that I had been chosen, I swallowed that with a lot of pride because I’d been given the opportunity to teach and continue my passion for communication.”

Davis says the scholarship makes her think about her positionality when conducting research and gives her confidence knowing she has a space to work, talk, and connect with individuals that are outside of the standard, hegemonic views of society.

“When I get to be with these groups of people or lead them, it makes me reflect on my own identities and that influences my work,” Davis said. “I’m writing not just as a scholar, but as a Black scholar. I’m writing as a Black graduate student. I’m writing as a Black queer scholar in my work.”

Brennan-Moran is fond of Davis’ writing abilities and the way she weaves together theoretical insights with a stunning narrative voice. “Briana is an incredibly gifted writer—it is a treat to read her work,” Brennan-Moran said.

Davis’s main desire is for her degree to inspire people and to use the privilege of her current education to be the voice and advocate for people who don’t possess similar opportunities.

“I don’t want anybody that’s from my hometown or that I grew up with or went to school with to ever say that they don’t know anyone with a PhD,” Davis said. “I want my work to connect to them. I want to make research articles and papers that are understandable to not only my faculty and staff but to the people back home.”

Laurence Bray, associate provost of graduate education sees Davis’ story as an inspiration to future GIA scholars. “Briana’s story is a wonderful example of why scholarships, like the GIA one, are critical to higher education and can give every student an opportunity to pursue their dreams regardless of their background,” Bray said.