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Spotlighting Rural Communities

Dr. Darris R. Means

Title: Associate Professor, School of Education, University of Pittsburgh

Age: 39

Education: B.A., sociology and political science, Elon University; M.Ed., counselor education (student affairs), Clemson University; and Ph.D., educational research and policy analysis (higher education), North Carolina State University

Career mentors: Dr. Audrey “AJ” Jaeger, North Carolina State University; Dr. Jori Hall, University of Georgia; Dr. Tony Cawthon, Clemson University; Dr. Donald “DJ” Mitchell Jr., Molloy University; and Dr. Leigh Patel, University of Pittsburgh

Words of wisdom/advice for new faculty members: Find and develop a community of supportive colleagues and mentors. Be open to change and new directions as a teacher, scholar, advisor, and mentor.

Dr. Darris Means has authored and co-authored dozens of peer-reviewed articles, has received nearly $500,000 to support research and innovations in practice, has won a National Academy of Education/Spencer Foundation postdoc fellowship, and has served as the Dean’s Faculty Scholar in Equity, Justice and Rural Education in the School of Education at the University of Pittsburgh. “It’s all a team effort,” Means said.

As a researcher and tenured associate professor in the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Education, Means’ scholarship “examines racial and class inequities in rural contexts, challenging monolithic perspectives that equate rurality to whiteness,” wrote Dr. Donald “DJ” Mitchell Jr., vice president for diversity, equity, and inclusion at Molloy University and a 2020 Emerging Scholar, in his letter nominating Means this year.

“My interests in higher education are focused on access,” Means said. “I became interested in the topic because of my own experiences, primarily being a first-generation college student, being a student who received a maximum Pell Grant, and identifying as a gay Black student. Those identities very much shaped how I navigated my pathways to and through higher education.”

One of the highlights of his academic journey was working with the Elon Academy, a program he helped develop at his alma mater Elon University. “My first full-time job after earning my master’s degree was to return to Elon to help start a college access and success program,” he recalled, adding the program was designed for students from low-income families or first-generation college students.

The seven years Means spent “doing that work, on the ground — learning from students, learning from families, learning from co-workers — very much informs how I approach my day-to-day work,” he said. “I realized there were more opportunities to engage in scholarship and research, to amplify what we know that works while, at the same time, trying to understand the inequities that these students experience every day.”

Means says he sees promise and potential in the high school students who need access and opportunity. He is inspired by his mother, who passed away when he was 13. She worked at a neighborhood convenience store to support him and his two younger brothers. “My mom did not earn a college degree but when I was growing up, she talked about college often and what my future would look like if I went to college … so I felt a strong calling … to help other young people on their own pathways to college,” he said.

“Something that drives me to examine the experiences of rural Black youth is the constant erasure of rural communities of color and rural Black communities,” he said. “I want to continue to disrupt monolithic perspectives about rural communities.”

Means received the 2017 National Academy of Education/Spencer Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship to conduct a longitudinal qualitative study on postsecondary education access for rural Black students. He found that racial, class, and spatial disparities amplified postsecondary education access inequities for rural Black youth. He also found that these students relied on local Black social networks and their own aspirations to persevere despite the challenges.

Means was also a 2021 Richard P. Nathan Public Policy Fellow for the Rockefeller Institute of Government. As a part of the fellowship, he collaborated with seven undergraduates from rural communities or students attending rural institutions to study how state policy and context shape rural college student success.

Means’ endeavors have yielded enviable results. During his tenure with Elon Academy, he worked with more than 120 students and their families, leading to a 95% college persistence rate during his tenure there. Means has received close to $500,000 in funding altogether to support his research and programs he has helped to develop. He doesn’t take credit for any of it without mentioning others in his team, particularly a project funded by the National Science Foundation that involved undergraduate researchers. He pointed out that Dr. Julie Stanton, an associate professor of cellular biology at the University of Georgia, was principal investigator. He was co-PI, and the undergrads were co-researchers.

Mitchell, who has been one of Means’ mentors, said Means’ scholarship “is pushing educators, policymakers, and researchers to consider a diverse rural geographical context in their practices and research.”

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