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A very personal PhD

Herrison Chicas

For most of his life, Herrison Chicas (BA ’13, PhD ’24) learned about his parents’ lives through short stories and fleeting moments.

They were immigrants from El Salvador who settled in a comparatively poor area of Long Island. Chicas’ father has a second-grade education and was a farm laborer. He found work in the U.S., first at a chain restaurant washing dishes before shifting to construction work.

Chicas’ mother, who didn’t finish high school, cleaned the homes of other Long Islanders when she wasn’t cooking and cleaning for her own family.

Chicas saw their sacrifices. His father, sometimes still covered in sawdust, made it a priority to take him and his siblings to soccer practice after work. To make extra money, his mother took her children dumpster-diving for aluminum cans to recycle for 5 cents each.

But Chicas would not understand the depth of his parents’ experiences until he almost lost both of them.

In 2015, his father was diagnosed with prostate cancer, requiring a lengthy recovery. Three years later, Chicas donated a kidney to his mother that saved her life.

“We used to drive over an hour each way for our clinical checkups and during those car rides I asked my parents about their lives,” says Chicas. “As an adult, I was finally able to ask them both, ‘Why’d you do all of this?’ Getting that fuller picture of their lives was beautiful.”

It also jump-started his groundbreaking PhD research at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School.

Herrison Chicas

Photo by Rocky Chen

“Let’s do it.”

Before joining the Business School’s PhD program in organizational behavior in 2019, Chicas met with Professor Shimul Melwani, who later became his PhD adviser.

With an undergraduate degree in psychology and sociology from Carolina already under his belt and working as a leadership coach to executive clients and a professional storyteller, Chicas thought about the best way to combine his interests. The field of organizational behavior attracted him.

Underlying it all was a desire to better understand himself as a first-generation Latino college student as well as the millions of immigrants now working in America.

“There were two papers in management literature written just to say that we need more papers on immigrants,” says Chicas. “Literally, these papers were saying there weren’t any papers.”

He pitched the grain of an idea that would become his first-authored study: exploring the professional identities of immigrants in America and how immigrant parents shape the workplace behavior of their children.

This evolved into a paper, co-authored with Melwani, about how children of immigrants “status-strive” at work, spurred on by an implicit responsibility to fulfill their parents’ expectations to become highly accomplished professionally and personally. He won the 2022 Jenessa Shapiro Graduate Research Award for the paper.

Herrison Chicas (PhD '24)

Chicas (far left) with Tracy Barbera (PhD ’22), Ben Rogers (PhD ’23) and Natalie Croitoru (PhD ’24).

“I remember Shimul looking at the idea and just saying, ‘Let’s do it,’” says Chicas. “It was validating for me as a scholar, and also because it’s so personal to me. It said to me that it matters and that I matter.”

Chicas’ innovative research comes at a time when workplace dynamics are increasingly complex. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were an estimated 29.8 million foreign-born workers in the U.S. in 2022, a 6% jump compared to 2021.

In 2022, foreign-born workers accounted for a record 18.1% of the entire U.S. civilian labor force. The U.S. Department of Labor defines foreign-born workers as those of any race who live in the U.S. but were not U.S. citizens at birth.

“My parents are just two people out of the millions who are part of this. I get to learn about the journeys my parents and many immigrants have gone through or are going through right now,” says Chicas. “These are captivating stories.”

A natural storyteller

Chicas’ research focuses on diversity and immigration, narrative identity and intergenerational behavior, shining light on a large population of workers who are frequently invisible.

Telling these stories is not new for him.

Chicas moved with his family to Charlotte when he was 15. Entering Carolina as a Covenant Scholar, he was introduced to spoken-word poetry through the Project Uplift program. The first story he performed was about his mom cleaning toilets. Another was about his cousin joining a gang. All were powerful stories about wrestling with his identity.

Between his undergraduate degrees and entering the Business School, Chicas traveled the U.S. as a spoken-word poet and a keynote speaker for notable businesses and institutions. For three years he was an executive coach through the consultancy firm he founded to focus on leadership development and storytelling coaching.

Herrison Chicas

Support at UNC Kenan-Flagler for his research, “said to me that it matters and that I matter,” says Chicas.

After graduation, Chicas hopes to join the faculty at a research-intensive institution and teach organizational behavior courses. One thing he knows for sure is the influence that Carolina and UNC Kenan-Flagler have had on his evolving story — and uncovering the stories he considers his mission to tell.

“I’ve been really lucky to find an institution that always supported and continues to support this work,” says Chicas. “UNC Kenan-Flagler provides the necessary guidance that you need but also allows you the space to explore and do the work you feel is important.

“If people are looking for a cookie-cutter place, then don’t look here. But if you’re trying to find a place that pushes you intellectually and values the perspective you bring to the table, then you hit the jackpot at UNC Kenan-Flagler.”