Dr. Adrienne Grayson entered the field of higher education with a goal of helping students have a positive college experience.
Her interest in student affairs stemmed from being an Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) tutor and holding several related jobs during her undergraduate years at the University of California, Irvine (UCI).
“I just wanted to continue to support students and help improve their college experience,” says Grayson, a recent doctoral graduate from San Diego State University (SDSU). “We talk about outcomes a lot. We talk about GPA, number of units, all of that. We also need to be looking at students’ college experiences. What are some meaningful, valuable experiences that they are going to take into the workforce?”
When students reflect on their college experience, Grayson wants them to remember their contributions and accomplishments rather than feeling as though they don’t belong or are just another number in the classroom.
She continued her work at UCI after graduating and eventually became director of the school’s Early Academic Outreach Program. The program aims to increase the number of low-income and first-generation students of color at UCI.
“It was very rewarding work,” says Grayson. “But I realized that no matter what I did, there was still a limited number of spaces at UCI. If I helped a hundred students to become competitively eligible, there would still only be a small percentage of those students who were actually admitted.”
After 14 years and feeling that she could make a “different impact on students entering higher education,” Grayson shifted to community college work. She became the director of Special Populations and Equity Programs at Chaffey College.
“When I got to [Chaffey], I was pleasantly surprised at the diversity of the students,” she says. “Not only by race and ethnicity, but also by their life experiences. Every day, I came to work and left work inspired by the students I was encountering. It was just amazing.”
Working with students at Chaffey inspired Grayson’s doctoral dissertation, “The Relationship Between Gendered Racial Identity and the Academic Success of African American Women Enrolled in Community Colleges.”
Upon first entering the doctoral program at SDSU in 2017, she realized that there was limited research around Black women at community colleges. The existing research mostly focused on Black males.
After conducting the literature review, Grayson found that oftentimes, Black women outperform Black males. However, they still perform at lower rates compared to their female counterparts in other races and among White men.
Additionally, many Black women who began their higher education career at a community college shared similar backgrounds to “nontraditional students.” For example, many work full-time as well as juggle family responsibilities.
“I felt that we needed to speak about it to the world,” says Grayson. “Prior research showed there are different ways that Black men and Black women are socialized as they grow up. And so I knew that there had to be differences in how they approached their collegiate experiences. I wanted to explore that more.”
From her findings, Grayson emphasized the importance of classroom experiences and that faculty members must show their “authentic, genuine care for their students on a daily basis.” Her research found that Black women, specifically, felt that they were being excluded from the classroom as well as faced microaggressions from their peers.
“The experiences, the environment and the community that faculty create in the classroom cannot be underestimated,” she says. “This is something that has to be constantly remembered, recreated and reinforced throughout the length of the course.”
After graduating this spring, Grayson’s dissertation received the Dr. Ron Jacobs Outstanding Research Award during the annual SDSU Doctorate in Education with a Concentration in Community College Leadership (CCLEAD) program Alumni Group Fall Recognition Celebration.
“I was very excited to receive it, especially knowing the great research that my classmates and colleagues had done,” says Grayson. “So, this was truly an honor. I was very excited for the opportunity to share the results and to really be able to share some of the insights that I had gained from the participants in this study.”
Throughout her career, Grayson’s “proudest moments” are when students express excitement about pursuing their degree and show interest in joining on-campus organizations.
“Those are some of the greatest moments — when students talk about how they are stepping out and getting involved in the college in ways that they never imagined possible when they first stepped foot on a college campus,” she adds.
This article originally appeared in the January 21, 2021 edition of Diverse. You can find it here.