Rachel Despard is a senior majoring in music with minors in public policy and social and economic justice within the UNC College of Arts & Sciences. She studies how recorded music boosts community collaboration, affects visibility for vulnerable populations, and addresses systematic inequalities.
Q: When you were a child, what was your response to this question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
A: I’ve always wanted to be a singer. There are countless home videos of me performing for my parents with a plastic microphone. I started taking voice lessons at 10 and sang in talent showcases throughout elementary school. In middle school, I sang in the choir and participated in every masterclass and workshop I had time for. By the time I got to high school, I was studying music seriously and decided I wanted to pursue it as a career.
Q: Share the pivotal moment in your life that helped you choose your field of study.
A: While music was my passion for most of my life, I had an existential crisis upon entering college. Music isn’t a straightforward career path, and when the time came to make my first big life decision, I was afraid of the potential for failure. I wanted to know: Was there any other career that I could be fulfilled by? So I began to pursue a degree in public policy, which seemed to be a good second option. I thought about dropping my music major altogether. Halfway through my third year, I realized my academics were making me miserable and I was the most detached from music I had ever been in my life. I knew if I decided to pursue music again, I couldn’t have one foot in and one foot out. So I dropped my public policy major and began to commit all of my time to music — and have never looked back.
Q: Tell us about a time you encountered a tricky problem. How did you handle it and what did you learn from it?
A: Sometimes writing music feels easy, as if it falls out of my brain onto the page. One fall, I had the worst writer’s block I’ve ever encountered. I tried different exercises, practices, tips, and tricks — anything to get out of the slump — but songs still weren’t coming. So, for two weeks, I took a break from writing and instead used my hour of practice time to listen to music, draw, or read. I let myself lean into spontaneous moments of inspiration or curiosity. Most importantly, I wasn’t trying so hard. Finally, one day in late October, I had it. The song I had been craving for so long spilled out in 15 minutes.
Q: Describe your research in 5 words.
A: Recording music for deeper understanding.
Q: What are your passions outside of research?
A: Hiking, running, and climbing. A connection with nature keeps me balanced and grounded and being active helps me feel strong and capable. These are important parts of my life that I will always make time for.
Research UNCovered delves into the lives of UNC researchers from all disciplines and career levels, showcasing not only their research prowess but personal experiences in academia and beyond.
By Endeavors magazine