College access extends beyond essays, SAT scores, and tuition costs. For many first-generation college students, it's about deeper questions that pry at your soul: How can I relate to other students? Am I cut out for this? Do I even belong here?
For students with no family history of attending college, these questions can define their success — or not. Which is why College of Education assistant professor Darris Means is researching ways institutions can increase that access, opening doors to college that some students thought were closed.
"It's a true passion for me, partly because I was a first-generation college student," he says. "I came from a low-income background ... my grandfather left school in first grade to help provide financial support for his family, and he never learned to read or write. That really drives my interest in college access and persistence topics."
Means' research takes him in two directions: the intersection of race, gender, and sexual orientation, primarily looking at the experience of black or African-American lesbian, gay, and bisexual college students; and college access and persistence for students in underrepresented populations.
As a faculty member of the Elon Academy, a program of Elon University in North Carolina that promotes college readiness among high school students, Means travels back every summer to continue his research there. But instead of sitting back and observing, Means is an active participant, serving as a mentor while encouraging teens to choose their own research topics stemming from issues in their community.
In this way, the students learn to see college as a place to create change — not just to take more classes — while learning how research can impact a community. It's also helped Means see his own research in a new light.
"I'm trying to challenge myself as a researcher to use an anti-deficit perspective and collaborate with underrepresented student populations," says Means. "It gives me an opportunity to go from, 'I'm doing research on this topic,' to 'I'm doing research with the student population.' So I really appreciate how powerful that can be. You can build a relationship with the young people who, for some of them, are trying to figure out their voice in the world."
As a result, the teens learn data collection and analysis and share their findings through presentations for family, friends and local officials in the community.
The overall goal, says Means, is to show institutions that it's possible to change, and some of the best ideas for that change can come directly from your community. It's about helping organizations make shifts and changes to create systems of support for all students to succeed.
"I don't expect the findings to have an immediate impact," he says, "but I hope that the culmination of my research findings will make an impact on schools, higher education institutions, and communities to enhance a culture of success."
Related links: Department of Counseling and Human Development Services