Predoctoral Institute Inspires Evident Change Researcher
As a first-generation Latina college student, applying to graduate school was something I always wanted to do. Yet I was intimidated and saw graduate study as somewhat unobtainable. While I have always had mentorship and support in my networks, I found myself seeking and wanting advice from people like me.
This is why I was so overjoyed when I learned about and was admitted into the 2021 Leadership, Equity, and Diversity for Higher Education (LEAD) Predoctoral Institute hosted by the Washington University Brown School Center for Innovation in Child Maltreatment Policy, Research and Training. This institute was designed for and by BIPOC students interested in pursuing graduate degrees in the child welfare field and provided guidance on graduate school application from scholars with similar backgrounds.
The institute covered trends and research gaps related to child maltreatment, how to identify universities and professors that are a good fit for your research interests, and general application advice.
For me, one of the most significant things we discussed as a cohort was the collective goal to center culture in our research as we enter academia as scholars of color. How do we enter and oblige by the rules of research and academia while still holding the best interest of our community and those most affected by our research? How do we ensure that we are enriching our communities and not just speaking into an echo chamber with one another once we become someone with a master’s degree or PhD?
The truth is that as BIPOC students we can expect that our community members will be absent from our classrooms, and we will probably often find ourselves as one of few from our racial backgrounds. This means we will need to consciously advocate to ensure that we center our communities and report back data in an understandable, digestible way with actionable recommendations.
During the institute, a panelist gave an example about Athens-Clarke County, Georgia, where they conducted research on the reported rising level of gang activity in the area. Before starting the research, the panelist was told that the number of youth active in gangs was sure to be high. But, when they began interviewing participants, they found most youth did not identify as gang involved and expressed issues with unemployment and transportation. Researchers reported these findings and worked with the county to implement free bus rides for all youth under the age of 18 during the summer and resources for interview and resume assistance.
Another great practice I learned about was Community Based Participatory Research (CBPR), which gives researchers and participants equal power in evaluation plans while centering the value of lived experience. CBPR creates a platform for community members to work alongside researchers on first understanding the problem being evaluated and developing research plans and measures.
We also discussed another commonly used method to center participants in research: the implementation of an advisory board. An advisory board includes members that have lived experience on the topic at hand and serve to provide practice expertise and feedback on research design and processes. This method is something Evident Change is currently utilizing in our developing Texas Girls and Gangs study. The study design includes system-impacted women through the Young Women’s Leadership Academy (YWLA), which includes a group of young women who identify as involved, affiliated, or associated with gangs in the region we are studying. By lending their voices and experiences to the study, the YWLA will help guide both the methodologies (e.g., recruitment strategies) and the interpretation of findings from the study.
Panelists also addressed the challenge of battling imposter syndrome as BIPOC scholars in white spaces. I learned that imposter syndrome is something that most graduate students and even associate and tenured professors still deal with. While we discussed the negative aspects of self-doubt that can be triggered by microaggressions and lack of representation, we also shared words of encouragement and affirmations.
I left the three-day institute feeling whole and excited for the journey of learning and self-discovery ahead of me and for the chance to reflect, write, and become an expert in an area I am so passionate about. The reason I want to further my education is to leave comfort behind and grow for the sake of giving my community and others a voice through data. As author David McCullough Jr. said, “You should climb to the top of the mountain to get a better view of the world, not so the world gets a better view of you.”