For Michael Menefee, analyzing mass incarceration and its relationship to social inequality is more than a timely and provocative topic worthy of further research, or an avenue toward an eventual master’s degree and Ph.D.

For Menefee, a junior at Southern Oregon University, it’s personal. His father has been in and out of jail Menefee’s entire life, and when he was 12 his older brother was sentenced to life in prison.

So when the 23-year-old from Santa Rosa, Calif., received a surprise email in March informing him that he had been selected for a prestigious summer internship that would allow him to delve deeper into his favorite subject, he was thrilled. Especially when he noticed the school to which he had been accepted: Harvard University.

“It was definitely surreal,” Menefee said. “I remember walking around for a while kind of in shock. That’s probably the best way to describe it. It was almost hard to believe.”

Menefee, who’s on track to graduate from SOU with honors in 2016, was preparing to interview for the same internship at the University of Michigan when Harvard’s email arrived. He accepted the following day, the deciding factor being that the Summer Research Opportunities internship in Cambridge, Mass., will allow him to work alongside Harvard professor Devah Pager, whom Menefee calls a “rock star” in the field of mass incarceration.

Basically, as far as Menefee is concerned, landing the Harvard internship, available to undergraduates considering pursuing a Ph.D in humanities, social sciences or life or physical sciences, was a dream scenario and he can’t wait to begin the program next month. The internship, which runs from June 8 through Aug. 16, includes funding for all course-related expenses, food allowance, housing, travel to and from the program and a living stipend.

The thought of living and working with some of the most ambitious, accomplished undergraduate students in the country would likely be intimidating for most anyone, but Menefee is looking forward to the challenge.

“I think I’ll be a little nervous,” he said, “just the whole thing of going from Southern Oregon, which is a small liberal arts college, to a renowned research university. Harvard is a research powerhouse, so it’ll be a new experience for me. But at the same time, I feel like I know my area of research pretty well, so that gives me confidence that I can generate a decent research project over the summer.”

At Southern Oregon, Menefee, a member of the Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program, is pursuing a bachelor of science degree in sociology with a minor in statistics and also works as a teaching assistant in a gender, sexuality and women’s studies class. For his senior capstone, he plans on researching county-level imprisonment rates in California and its effects on the well-being of children

It’s a subject that’s right up Menefee’s alley, and has been for a long time.

“Growing up, about the time I was a teenager,” he said, “I had experience in my family with incarceration, so when I first became aware of that it was not from an academic standpoint, but from a personal standpoint. I became aware of how incarceration can affect family members.”

Soon, Menefee was zooming in on the racial disparity in the United States’ criminal justice system, research through which he acquired the basic language for understanding a complicated social problem and, more intimately, validation of his own feelings.

At first, he was interested only in mass incarceration and what popular scholars were saying about it, but eventually he expanded his scope to include the sociological implications — the cause and effect relationship between punishment and inequality. This dynamic, he explained, can be broken down into three domains: how it affects children, how it affects families and how it affects communities.

“And so going through all that literature,” Menefee said, “you see that (mass incarceration) has unintended consequences for communities, families and children.”

The data confirmed what Menefee had already experienced first-hand, which in a way was comforting. And inspiring.

“I had that personal interest and that passion after having that experience,” he said, “and now being able to have, hopefully, more of a say in the actual research and affect policy change, for me that would be fulfilling given my experience with it.”

If Menefee doesn’t sound like your typical college student, that’s because he isn’t, says SOU sociology professor Amanda Bans. Menefee has worked under Bans as a teacher’s aid and aspires to become a faculty member while continuing his research. Where Menefee hopes to do that, he isn’t saying.

To Bans, what makes Menefee unique isn’t just his ability to pull off the top of his head a seemingly limitless supply of facts and figures to support his arguments, it’s his insatiable hunger to acquire more and apply it to real-world problems.

“If you listen to him talk it’s like graduate-level work, not graduate,” Bans said. “His intellectual capacity is far beyond undergrad status. And, he’s an academic’s dream because he’s such a nerd at heart. It’s nice to geek out with somebody who gets it. You can have a normal personal conversation with him for a second, but it’s always going to turn out sociological. It’s like talking to a colleague.”

Where will Menefee end up? For Bans, it’s hard to say. She had another student comparable to Menefee who ended up getting a master’s in teaching. Menefee himself says he’d love to continue his research at a university. For now, he’ll have to settle for Harvard.

“With Michael, I don’t know,” Bans said. “On the one hand, he really embraces the research component. But he’s also a realist, which I really appreciate. I don’t think he’ll be trapped in an ivory tower the rest of his life. I don’t think he’d be satisfied with that.”

Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-821-0829 or jzavala@dailytidings.com.