Graduate student takes every opportunity to improve the world

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Graduate student Jenna Grzeslo has a mindset that has made her a renaissance woman in Penn State's College of Communications: When an opportunity knocks, she opens the door. 

This willingness to try new things has helped her to build a CV that is remarkably interdisciplinary. While some researchers hyper-focus on a single topic, she keeps an open mind to new areas of study — particularly areas that benefit the greater good. 

“It may not always make sense at first,” Grzeslo said. “Graduate study is a time to see everything that comes my way as an opportunity. It may not fit in my repertoire exactly, but it might be something really interesting that can help me grow and learn.”  

With a number of diverse projects already on her resume, the third-year graduate student will have her sights set on a single goal next year: a dissertation. And for that project, she will travel to Nairobi, Kenya, to study the use of mobile phones by young entrepreneurs.

“There is a big push to encourage entrepreneurship in Kenya to promote economic growth, innovation and improving life,” Grzeslo said. “Young people are an important group in this.”

By interviewing innovative Kenyan millennials, Grzeslo will learn mobile technology’s role in their business’ success by examining their use of mobile payments. How are they handled? How can they be used effectively? What does it mean for young people with new business ideas?

“I’m very excited about the potential of Jenna’s dissertation research. It’s very ambitious,” said Krishna Jayakar, associate professor of telecommunications and Grzeslo’s graduate adviser. “Jenna has gone about it methodically, applying for grants, gaining research permissions and familiarizing herself with Kenya. It highlights the best aspects of Jenna’s personality … systematic organization of work and excellent time management skills.”

“It’s about leaving the world a better place than you found it, whether it’s back home in Wisconsin, in Centre County or thousands of miles away.” — Jenna Grzeslo, Penn State graduate student

Grzeslo picked Nairobi because although mobile phones are common there, economic opportunities are not. Mobile banking options are also relatively new, which makes it a prime subject to watch evolve. She wants to see how these innovative minds are using the resources available to them. “It’s called bricolage,” Grzeslo said. “It means ‘making due with what you have.’ That is what all entrepreneurs have to do.”

Before mobile banking was a possibility, the majority of individuals did not have access to formal banking services for their business, according to Grzeslo. The new mobile payment systems provide these services and open a door to new business possibilities. 

“Think about how hard it would be to save and run a business without financial services,” she said. “It really starts to open your eyes, but they made do with what they had. Now they have the services, and we can see what it means to them as entrepreneurs, and maybe my research can help them succeed.”

There is some research literature that examines this type of commerce and mobile use, but Grzeslo says no one has specifically studied youth entrepreneurs. It is an opening for an innovative dissertation, but there is something else that connects Grzeslo to the creative minds of east Africa.

Grzeslo grew up in Algoma, Wisconsin, a small rural city on Lake Michigan. She is a first-generation college graduate and said the citizens of Algoma often embrace the spirit of “bricolage,” the construction or creation of a work from a diverse range of things that happen to be available. She attributes her willingness to take advantage of opportunities to her small-town upbringing, as well as her interest in other communities in need of a little help.

“I’m not saying I understand the poverty people in east Africa are going through, but I grew up poor in a rural community,” Grzeslo said. “It’s about leaving the world a better place than you found it, whether it’s back home in Wisconsin, in Centre County or thousands of miles away.”

“Jenna seems to be naturally drawn to areas where a problem needs to be solved, or an intervention needs to be made,” Jayakar said. “I see this as a fine example of socially conscious research, research that is not exclusively concerned with the ivory tower, but actively seeks to address societal problems.”

In March, Grzeslo, along with fellow Penn State graduate students Akshaya Sreenivasan and Steve Bien-Aime, published a study in the journal Association for Computing Machinery. They examined the lifecycle of information/communication technologies and learned that truckloads of old mobile phones and electronics were being dumped into the Odaw River, once a main source of water for thousands of people living in Ghana. Today, the river has practically vanished.

“It’s something a lot of people may not think about. Countries like Ghana and China are receiving our e-waste, in addition to their own e-waste, and it’s causing serious environmental problems,” Grzeslo said. “I think too often we treat the environment as tomorrow’s issue.”

Their findings indicated a lack of procedure to properly dispose of e-waste. There was also limited scholarly-input on the lifecycle of these products. Grzeslo said the United States needs to take some responsibility in the trash it sends to other countries. The researchers hope scholars will take on future projects that will channel e-waste through proper and environmentally-friendly processes.

Among her array of disciplines, practicality is a common theme throughout Grzeslo’s research. She wants to take what she learns into the real world so it’s as effective and beneficial as possible. She wants results people can use. 

Graduate study is a time to see everything that comes my way as an opportunity. It may not fit in my repertoire exactly, but it might be something really interesting that can help me grow and learn.” — Jenna Grzeslo

Similarly, another one of Grzeslo’s projects seeks to help out freelance journalists who find themselves working in an ever-changing digital environment, and competing with technology and competition they’ve never seen before. The project is called Journolancing, and along with project leader and associate professor of telecommunications Anne Hoag, Grzeslo hopes to learn as much as she can about freelance journalists. 

The journolancing team conducted an international survey of more than 400 freelance journalists. They wanted to understand who freelance writers are, what they do and how they are adapting to new technology. 

“How has the internet disrupted journalism? We’re looking at it from the perspective of freelancers,” Grzeslo said. “Suddenly, journalists are competing with reporters all over the world. How are they able to stay engaged despite shifts and changes in journalism?”

Grzeslo and Hoag said they were interested in the people themselves and hearing real stories about their adjustments. Their goal is to develop resources so freelance journalists can continue to provide useful and relevant news reporting. 

Grzeslo also has a side project that involves partnering with a community-based organization in order to create workshops for current and future media consumers.  “We’re planning a workshop for young girls to focus on the representation of women in the media and social media,” she said. “We want to provide tools so they can grow up with a critical understanding of media. We don’t want them to hate media. Given today’s media landscape, this is obviously an important topic.”

Grzeslo has stumbled upon many important topics over the past three years. Each one has a common trait: bettering the world. And to do that, she has found out, it takes a multi-faceted approach and a trip around the planet.

“Jenna’s research is fantastic because the future will need to be interdisciplinary,” said Hoag, who is also on Grzeslo’s dissertation committee. “If we embrace the chaos of an interdisciplinary world, maybe we can solve problems.”

Last Updated January 16, 2017