Rossier project highlights marginalized students’ stories

A new project from the USC Rossier School of Education is helping to influence higher education policy by collecting student profiles from marginalized groups.

Zoë Corwin, an associate research professor at Rossier, initiated My Higher Ed Story through the Pullias Center for Higher Education. She said that one of the main goals is to provide people with information about how higher education policy affects students personally.

“I thought that it was really important for people who are making policy and people who are reading the newspaper and people who vote to get to know some of the students that can either be helped or hurt by new legislation and current legislation,” Corwin said. “A lot of times, if you yourself are not a first-generation student and you haven’t had that experience, it’s maybe hard to know what other students have gone through.”

Corwin said that she conceived of the project, in part, because of the current presidential administration.

“After the recent presidential election, we put out a series of policy and informational pieces to encourage the new administration to think about the work that we do here,” Corwin said. “Dr. Tierney, who co-directs the Pullias Center, led the way and we put out a piece for the new Secretary of Education about Higher Ed [and] the head of the higher education task force. We had all these pieces going out just to say we know a little bit about how to support students who have been historically marginalized.”

According to Corwin, part of the work the Pullias Center does is research how to increase college access.

“How do schools, school districts, the government, [and] access providers help students who are first in their families to go to college, low income, etc.,” Corwin said. “So that’s the research we’ve been doing for a very long time.”

Corwin added that one thing they found post-election was that many students were fearful about their futures.

“I was actually teaching a master’s level course, and I had students coming to me who were scared and fearful about the future,” Corwin said. “We work in a lot of high schools in the area where kids were not going to school, they were scared of what was going to happen with their families. That’s due to immigration status; it’s due to students from religious minorities, and some LGBTQ students are concerned because there’s a lot of uncertainty.”

Corwin said that as a qualitative researcher, she believes in the power of storytelling, which was a driving factor in the launch of My Higher Ed Story project.

“We were really reaching out to people from a historically underrepresented group,” Corwin said. “Everyone found a couple of people to tell their story and we asked them: What has been a pivotal moment in your higher ed journey? Where has higher education let you down? What do you think policy makers and practitioners need to know about higher ed and financial aid?”

Corwin said that this project is timely given the current political climate.

“With a lot of the rhetoric that’s going on right now, people can feel less than or scared to wear a hijab or scared to be out,” Corwin said. “I think that they felt it was rather empowering to be able to share their stories and hopefully make an impact beyond their circle. It’s nice because the participants are not just from USC, they’re from institutions across the country. So we’ve been hearing back from all different institutions to say how much people are appreciating hearing the stories.”

Corwin said that the premise of the project is knowing that people’s stories can be transformational.

“So often we harbor resentment or stereotypes or just misinformation about different groups of people, and it’s really hard to find the spaces to interact,” Corwin said. “I think this was an effort to spread stories out, and my hope is that if people get to know stories then we’ll slowly be able to break down different biases.”

Antar Tichavakunda, a Ph.D. student in the Rossier School of Education and a curator of the project, wrote in an email to the Daily Trojan that he was particularly touched by the sheer volume of people who were ready and willing to share their stories.

“It’s difficult to remain unchanged after reading these narratives,” Tichavakunda wrote. “[The goal of the project is] to remind folks of the humanity of people who maybe look differently from us that would not come in contact with otherwise.”

Erica Kirk, a graduate student and contributor to My Higher Ed Story, wrote in an email to the Daily Trojan that the project is important because it gives a voice to students who are not typically heard.

“For me personally, it’s nice to know that there are people who look at diversity beyond simple numbers,” Kirk wrote. “Students from underrepresented and marginalized backgrounds have stories and histories that shape their educational experience.”

Kirk chose to share the story because transgender and gender-nonconforming students often have few role models that have succeeded in higher education.

“I am a graduate student who has dealt with harassment and discrimination but I have persisted and will graduate this May,” Kirk wrote. “It would have meant the world for me to see that as an undergrad, so I know the importance of sharing our struggles and our successes.”

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated Erica Kirk’s preferred pronoun. The Daily Trojan regrets the error.

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