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New fellowship equips grad students for social justice work

  • Asia Randolph,
    Asia Randolph,  a first-generation college student who is now in her second year in the university’s doctoral program in educational policy, planning and leadership, is among the inaugural group of Social Justice and Diversity Fellows.  Photo by Roxie Patton
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Asia Randolph has a passion for cross-cultural mentoring, so much so that she has made it the focus of her research as a doctoral student in the William & Mary School of Education.

But Randolph will soon have the opportunity to be mentored herself while also improving her research skills and connecting with other students with similar interests as one of the university’s inaugural Social Justice and Diversity Fellows.

Eight W&M graduate students in the School of Education were selected to be the first participants in the program, which was created by Assistant Professor of Education Natoya Haskins. The fellows’ one-year term begins in the fall and will include the opportunity to work on research with other students and faculty mentors to address a variety of topics related to social justice and diversity.

“We hope those experiences, either working alongside or being mentored by powerhouse faculty, will inspire and motivate the fellows to pursue audacious research goals,” said Jacqueline Rodriguez, co-coordinator of the fellowship program and an assistant professor of education.

The program, which is open to graduate students of all levels across W&M, was created with funding from the School of Education as well as an Innovative Diversity Efforts Awards (IDEA) grant. It was one of five projects in the 2016-17 academic year to receive such a grant from Office of Diversity and Inclusion, which awards them annually to faculty, staff, students and campus organizations for efforts to advance diversity at W&M.

Supporting students

Haskins, who also serves as the co-director of the William & Mary Undergraduate Research Experience program, said that the idea for the fellowship came from her desire to provide support to graduate students interested in doing research on social justice topics.

“It’s about them cultivating their research identity and research skills as well as developing a network of individuals who look at the world through a lens of equity and justice and want to address these issues in a systemic way,” said Haskins.

The fellows were selected “for their interest in grassroots movements and demonstrated pursuit of ambitious research goals,” said Rodriguez.

“By encouraging these interests through our monthly professional development, research opportunities and interaction with likeminded peers, we are building a community of advocates who will pursue social justice in their future careers and in their personal lives,” she said.

In addition to working on teams with other students and faculty mentors, the fellows will also participate in a “brown-bag” discussion series on topics related to research, including methodologies, theoretical frameworks, publishing and writing. Additionally, the fellows will receive a small stipend to attend a conference and present their research – one of the many skills the students will be expected to possess if they look for academic positions one day.

“Most of what we’ll be doing is trying to fill the gaps in terms of social justice pedagogy,” said Haskins, “and, at the end of the year, the hope is that they can take their research project and turn it into a manuscript that they can then have published.”

Mentorship and more

Randolph, a first-generation college student who is now in her second year in the university’s doctoral program in educational policy, planning and leadership (EPPL), said that the mentorship piece of the fellowship is important, but it’s the research component that she found most appealing.

“Being able to understand all it will take to do the type of research I know I’ll have to do to publish, to create these great articles that give back to the community, I can gain that experience now rather than waiting until I decide to take a faculty position,” she said.

That will give her invaluable confidence as she pursues a dual faculty and administrator position in the future, Randolph added.

“What I’m most excited about it is having the confidence and knowledge I need to be successful, which I will carry with me throughout my life,” she said. “As a first-generation student, it’s been an interesting journey because, as they say, you don’t know what you don’t know. After this year, it’s about really being able to say that I know how to do the work of a scholar. I’ll feel confident enough to be able to go out on my own and do different projects and publish.”

Another doctoral student Laura Pignato hopes the program will help further her work by increasing her foundational social justice knowledge and enabling her to use rigorous methodology to apply those concepts.

“The use of qualitative methods offers powerful portrayals that can inform policy and culturally responsive practices for mental health professionals,” Pignato said. “Specifically, I hope to further my knowledge in rigorous research methodology and interdisciplinary perspectives from the fellowship to advocate for single mother families impacted by disasters. The fellowship allows for the opportunity to learn from top researchers in the field, as well as from one another through interdisciplinary collaboration.”

Dane Pascoe, a doctoral student interested in increasing access to higher education, felt discouraged at the end of the fall semester when the fellowship came to his attention.

“I didn’t know many others who saw social justice as their reason for conducting educational research, which was a bit of isolating. … But then I saw an email come out (about the fellowship)."

A kickoff event was held for the fellows in April, and, after meeting the others who were selected, Pascoe was excited to begin working with students with similar interests across disciplines.

“It’s encouraging to know that it’s not just a few other students in the higher ed program who are concerned about social justice and higher education,” Pascoe said. “Everyone, regardless of program, has that social justice thread in their research interests.”

For doctoral student Hannah Franz, her interest in equity in the transition from K-12 to college writing led her to co-author the new book, The Indispensable Guide to Undergraduate Research. The fellowship, she expects, will allow her to extend that line of work with others in the School of Education.

“Such collaborations are necessary for research that works toward equitable access to successful college transitions,” said Franz. “I foresee these collaborations as extending beyond the program and into the future, as research for social justice is an ongoing process that takes time and long-term commitment.”

Agents for social change

In addition to providing fellows the tools and training to better their scholarly and research efforts, Haskins hopes the program also provides its participants an opportunity to explore some of the personal and emotional aspects involved in social justice and diversity work.

“To fully engage in critical research, it requires consistent self-examination and intentionality to engage in social perspective taking,” said Pignato. “I believe this is at the core of the fellowship by helping us to examine why we are striving to be social change agents, what limits our vantage points and how we can learn from one another through a professional community that promotes dialogue about current issues informing our practice.”

In the future, Haskins hopes the program attracts interested graduate students from across disciplines at William & Mary. She also hopes that it will help attract more social justice-minded graduate students to the university.

As topics related to diversity continue to take center stage on the national level, college students are looking to be equipped to respond.

“Being able to have a program like this will hopefully help to promote this mission,” she said.