“With the help of FSU, the human trafficking research I’ve done has taken me all over the country, and even the world.”
FSU Presidential Scholar uses research to further solutions surrounding human trafficking from a public health perspective
Major: International Affairs and Religion
Graduation: Spring 2020
Leah Singleton, a graduating senior at Florida State University, found an unexpected world of opportunities at FSU as she began a career in public service.
In high school, Singleton discovered the broad scope of human trafficking issues when she lent a hand at a local nonprofit in her hometown of Winter Springs, Florida. As a result, she helped the organization raise $12,000 for a safehouse in India for girls at high-risk for human trafficking.
“Coming into college, I really wanted a university that valued international affairs and social justice and that could really help me pursue my passion for public service,” said Singleton, who double majored in international affairs and religion. “And I found that at FSU through the Academic Recruitment Organization.”
The Academic Recruitment Organization (ARO) is a student-run initiative that strives to recruit top academic talent to Florida State University through various forms of outreach and personalized campus tours. Singleton received a personalized tour of campus through ARO where she was paired with an upperclassman majoring in international affairs, who has since become a mentor to her.
“Throughout the tour, she helped me see my place at FSU and the various opportunities the university could provide for me, including research,” Singleton said.
Before this tour, Singleton had never considered getting involved in research because she was interested in public service and social justice and wasn’t aware of the many research opportunities outside of STEM.
Singleton applied to FSU’s Presidential Scholars program, the university’s premier undergraduate merit scholarship program, and was selected as one of 25 scholarship recipients from a pool of 800 applicants. In addition to the designated general scholarship funds, Presidential Scholars can receive up to $12,000 in educational enrichment funds through the program.
“Presidential Scholars was a huge deciding factor for me to come to FSU because of the enrichment funds that we receive,” Singleton said. “Knowing I would be able to experience different nonprofit work with the safety of knowing I could have travel and funding to pursue those opportunities was huge.”
At FSU, Singleton discovered that research could open unexpected doors and be used to search for further potential solutions for human trafficking.
As a freshman, Singleton conducted research under Professor David Berlan as part of the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP). The project focused on examining the way nonprofit leaders conceptualize their mission.
“Dr. Berlan really taught me everything I know about research,” Singleton said. “He opened my eyes to all the things you can do with qualitative research and how research expands beyond the STEM fields.”
After completing UROP, Singleton wanted to do more and applied to the Global Scholars Program to conduct research in Ghana the summer after her freshman year. FSU’s Global Scholars program aims to help students utilize research and critical thinking skills to engage with different cultural perspectives and make a positive impact in the global community.
Singleton was selected for the program and decided to take on an independent research project with a research partner that was beyond the scope of Global Scholars. She traveled to Ghana to complete a three-month internship where, by interviewing Ghanaians, she helped investigate the potential connection between local attitudes on contraception and the factors that lead to child labor.
However, after a few weeks she fell extremely ill and had to navigate the Ghanaian health care system as an American visitor. Through this experience, she was able to connect health care in the developing world to the larger issue of human trafficking.
With the help of her research partner still in Ghana, Singleton was able to complete the backside of their research by transcribing and coding. The two later teamed up to write a research paper on their findings and were published in FSU’s Research Journal.
Later, Singleton and her research partner presented their paper at the Harvard Undergraduate National Research Conference. One thing led to another and while at the conference, she met a professor and mentor at Harvard who would recommend her for an internship at Harvard for the summer.
She was offered the internship at Harvard’s FXB Center for Health & Human Rights, where she looked at health issues and human trafficking and realized that the two can go hand in hand. From this experience, she became interested in conducting further research that looked at human trafficking from a public health lens.
Eventually, Singleton became involved with the Big Bend Coalition Against Human Trafficking and FSU’s Center for the Advancement of Human Rights. Through these two organizations, she has been able to work for advocacy at the local level by implementing partnerships and events. One such partnership is collecting and distributing Chapstick with the human trafficking hotline number at local motels, as a they serve as a small and discrete item that can be carried.
As a senior, Singleton decided to take her research to the next level and conduct an Honors Thesis. She received funding from FSU’s Center for the Advancement of Human Rights, Social Science Scholars program, and Presidential Scholars program to pursue her research. She interned at a Colorado nonprofit and participated in their 8–week human trafficking leadership development program and later completed fieldwork in Minnesota, a state that implements a public health approach to human trafficking.
In April 2020, Singleton successfully defended her Honors Thesis, which created recommendations for the State of Florida on how using a public health approach can help combat human trafficking in the state. A large part of the project was streamlining the manner in which human trafficking data is captured and shared among agencies.
She was also one of four finalists for the Truman Scholarship for public service in the State of Florida last year.
After completing her undergraduate degree in May 2020, Singleton plans on working in public service in Washington, D.C., for a few years, with hopes of attending law school while earning a combined Master of Public Health degree.
“With the help of FSU, the human trafficking research I’ve done has taken me all over the country, and even the world,” Singleton said. “Find something you love and find people who can support you, so that you can do what you love well and pursue it fully.”