Cedarville professor shines light on thriving students of color in doctoral dissertation

A Cedarville University professor studied thriving students of color in her doctoral dissertation to help shine a light on them and to demonstrate the value of higher education at any age.

Rebecca Kuhn, coordinator of academic engagement and assistant professor of development education, completed an eight-year journey to earn her Ph.D in higher education from Azusa Pacific University.

Kuhn was able to earn the degree, with each of her six semesters beginning and ending with a week of class in-person, while also continuing her work for the university.

“Because of the distance learning and face-to-face hybrid format, I was able to continue my work at Cedarville and care for my aging parents, while still benefiting from the richness of in-person learning with my cohort and professors,” she said.

In her doctoral dissertation, Kuhn chose to focus on students of color in higher education because of the stagnant graduation rates of African American, Hispanic, Pacific Islander, Native American, and multi-racial students in particular for the last 50 years. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, these students of color graduate college at the average rate of 49%, 15 points behind white students.

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In her dissertation titled, “Beating the Odds: Counternarratives of Thriving Students of Color at Dominantly White Faith-Based Institutions,” Kuhn worked to determine what made a difference for students of color who were thriving and well on their way to completing their education.

“Even with all the interventions and programs initiated in higher education in the past 5 decades, these graduation rates have not increased,” Kuhn said. “Rather than looking at what prevents students of color from completing degrees, it is vital to speak to students of color who are successful and thriving in higher education, to highlight their positive stories and listen to their perspective because so much research has been deficit oriented.”

Kuhn’s motivation for this eight year journey started in her experiences she had as a missionary kid when her parents worked with Native Americans, and her exposure to families living in poverty and African American children from an urban setting.

“As an adult, I spent seven years in cross-cultural ministry in the Philippines and have worked with high-risk students in higher education for more than 25 years. Each of these life experiences contributed to my desire to make a difference in higher education by exploring what it takes for students of color to be successful in college,” she said.

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Kuhn had to seek ethical approval for her topic from the Institution Review Board, interview 10 students of color on how they thrive, identify themes from their responses, and write and edit her dissertation to obtain her degree. During the process, she was able integrate ideas she was learning in her program into strategies for the university’s academic enrichment center, the Cove, to help students thrive while become more attentive to students of color.

“I empathize with my students who encounter challenges and am better prepared to work with them in ways that help them thrive,” she said. “So much of what I was doing at the Cove started changing as I went through my program. It’s not just the finish that made the difference, it’s the process influencing others along the way.”

The most prominent finding from the research, Kuhn said, was that students of color are more likely to thrive in college when their institution creates an environment that is welcoming to every student, a place that feels like home to them.

Although Kuhn was the oldest member of her cohort when she started in 2014, she saw this Ph.D. program as an opportunity to continue learning and serving others by helping all college students thrive, particularly those of color at faith-based institutions. Her students even encouraged her and expressed interest in the topic.

“It made a difference in their lives that I hadn’t even considered,” she said. “I was delighted to share this milestone in my life with my students and introduce them to possibilities beyond their undergraduate program.”

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