Best & Brightest: UTEP Student’s Study of Success Recognized

The adverse effects of war, poverty and disease get enumerated each night on the evening news but occasionally, people who soar beyond all expectations emerge. The theory of positive deviance investigates these exceptions to the rule to find the formula for their über achievement.

A doctoral candidate in the rhetoric and composition program at The University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP), Lucía Durá has made positive deviance the focus of her research. Last month, she received the 2010 Public Interest Award from the University of Texas at Arlington Academy of Distinguished Scholars for her proposal to apply the positive deviance approach to help raise student retention and graduation rates in Texas.

“The use of positive deviance in problem-solving requires a simple shift in perception,” she says. “Rather than focusing on the problem and seeking external solutions, we look at what an individual or community is doing right and make that a model that can be replicated by others. Positive deviance is the glimmer of hope when other, more traditional approaches have failed.”

In a study, for example, of predominantly low-performing students in Argentina, those who excelled had parents who walked them to school each day. That simple loving act gave the students more confidence than their peers, Durá says, noting that positive deviance occurs when “people look at small opportunities where differences can be made.”

“If we want to raise graduation rates in Texas, we should study the behavior of what I call the least-usual suspects, those students who, despite facing the same obstacles and limited resources as their peers, remain in school and graduate. How did they do this? What can we learn from their success?”

A native of Mexico City, Durá grew up in Juarez, the border city to El Paso, crossing each day to attend school in the U.S. She and her family moved across the border when she turned 15. She graduated magna cum laude from St. Mary’s University and earned a master’s degree from UTEP in rhetoric and writing studies.

“Lucia has always had a healthy skepticism about the life and work of an academic,” says her degree adviser, Dr. Helen Foster. “She is what we call an action-researcher, someone who simultaneously researches and works with particular populations as a mediator to identify and address what is a significant agenda item to that population. Unlike many who approach community out-reach in the spirit of a missionary, Lucia’s approach is that of a genuine rhetorician, who recognizes and respects the knowledge(s) that the community has already made, independent of outside ‘assistance.’”

Born from a challenge last year by Dr. Dana Dunn, provost of UT-Arlington, to come up with some way to make the Academy of Distinguished Scholars at UT-Arlington more visible, the Public Interest Award includes a prize of $5,000.  Dr. William Ickes and Dr. Jon Campbell suggested the award as a way of recognizing graduate student talent and creativity in the UT system but also, for creating a conduit between the state’s learning institutions and the Texas Legislature by forwarding the winning proposals to lawmakers.

Out of 94 proposals, 10 were chosen by a panel of 22 members of the academy as finalists. The criteria for each two-page proposal required that they be viable, cost effective, creative and have the potential for positive impact on society. From the final 10, Durá’s received the top award — two others received honorable mention and awards of $2,500.

“Many proposals focused on certain points more than others. The winning proposals were strong on all fronts,” says Ickes.

Durá hopes to graduate later this year. Whether or not her proposal gets integrated into public policy, she’s destined to continue her work, applying positive deviance to reveal sustainable solutions.

“What we know about positive deviance is that little things matter. A lot of little things can offset the impact of one great event,” she says. “But what’s most attractive is that it gets at the need for sustainable solutions at a grassroots level and what we’re finding is that if the process is generated from the community, the solutions that evolve from that will have a long-term effect.”