Examining Notions of Social Justice Post-Doctoral Degree Completion

Updated Aug 12, 2021

What happens to dreams deferred in graduate school? Inspired by the Langston Hughes’ poem “A Dream Deferred,” this question is an impetus for thinking about post-degree completion notions of social justice. Post-degree completion is emphasized to highlight the ways degree completers actualize their ideals about social justice. In other words, how many of us act out our obligation to serve others in the field of education? Do notions of social justice “dry up?” Are they a heavy load? Do they explode?

Oftentimes, dreams of “changing the world” after graduation serve as fuel for graduate student achievement. This type of motivation was explored when my colleagues Ann Tiao (University of Pennsylvania), Patricia Louison (Georgetown University) and I met at the 2011 NASPA conference and conversed about how we embrace our social justice values within our work. As higher education alumna of the same institution, our discussion embraced a collective consciousness reminiscent of our similar academic journeys; wrought with an obligation to improve college and university environments. In an effort to facilitate a broader conversation about these notions of social justice, my colleagues join me as co-authors in this entry to share perspectives from our discussion at the conference.

Over the past decade, there’s been a fair amount of research focused on understanding student preparation, access, and retention in higher education for minorities and low-income students. However, there is not a clear conduit between the research on this topic and the work being done by guidance counselors, admissions counselors, and other student affairs personnel. As a practical matter, admissions officers and scholars of college access issues need to join forces and work through the obstacles uncovered through research and observation in order for headway to occur.

University-born theories and professionally tested practices rarely find themselves in the same space being refined in order to make gains in the area of college access and retention rates. We assert that meaningful collaboration between student affairs, academic affairs, scholars, and independent research organizations would increase the action-orientation of the groups and minimize the silos among them. One example of this approach is the Ed Trust’s National Center for Transforming School Counseling, which works with a network of organizations, state departments of education, school counselor associations, collegiate institutions and school districts to transform school counselors into change agents in their schools, as well as in the lives of students. Simply put, to build the social justice momentum, there must be a conscious effort to develop stronger ties among the constituents along the educational pipeline.

Colleges and universities have employed various strategies to bolster enrollment of underrepresented students, such as the development of pre-college outreach programs in minority areas and schools. According to statistics presented by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, approximately 75 percent of colleges and universities use recruitment strategies are geared toward underrepresented students (National Association for College Admission Counseling, 2010). Research on the “leaky” pipeline in higher education has emphasized the development of support programs designed to increase graduation rates among low-income and minority students. It also brings to bear the value of recent guidance from the White House that expands interpretation of federal legislation involving diversity in admissions.

While these efforts are important, training a new generation of educational leaders who are sensitive to the needs of these populations is another strategy for improving student success. Higher education graduate programs are great environments where the support of social justice initiatives can have a significant impact serving underrepresented student populations.    

For example, developing professional competency of racial and cultural awareness is an important strategy in facilitating a social justice in serving an increasingly diverse undergraduate student population. Graduate students who learn how racial and cultural issues may present themselves within college and university environments will be better prepared to support ongoing institutional diversity programs and initiatives, especially those that involve multiple constituencies.

Over the last few decades research on racial and cultural issues within higher education has facilitated more substantive discussions about diversity. However, these discussions have done very little to significantly improve enrollment and graduation rates of underrepresented student populations. Now is the time for the development of purpose-driven approaches in higher education training where promoting social justice is a matter of practical significance.

Dr. Pamela Felder is a lecturer in the higher education division of the graduate school of education at the University of Pennsylvania. Her professional background includes teaching experience at Teachers College, Columbia University and Camden County College, Camden City Campus.