School of Education study shows how virtual community-building aided retention for Black graduate students during pandemic

By Laurel White

A new study by three doctoral students in the UW–Madison School of Education offers firsthand and scholarly insight on how Black students created community and overcame obstacles during their transitions into doctoral programs during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The study by Janella D. Benson, Joshua D. Wallace, and Carl D. Greer Jr. was published in a special edition of the Journal of Negro Education edited by Gloria Ladson-Billings, professor emerita in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, and Ashley White, assistant professor in the Department of Rehabilitation Psychology and Special Education. Benson, Wallace, and Greer are doctoral students in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis.

Greer, Wallace, and Benson (L to R)

Benson, Wallace, and Greer used collaborative autoethnographic research methods to craft their analysis. Autoethnography is a form of inquiry in which researchers connect personal experiences to broader cultural, political, and social understandings. The authors say the study offers insight on how Black and other minoritized students can create essential community during transitions, despite monumental challenges.

“While previous studies examined and analyzed doctoral socialization processes, our study gains significance by examining the Black doctoral transition through the first-person perspectives of students navigating dual pandemics,” they wrote. 

In the study, Benson, Wallace, and Greer examined the ways in which they supported and created a community for each other during the concurrent challenges of personal and professional transition, a global health pandemic, and race-related social unrest throughout the United States. They also developed the concept of “Blackademic placemaking” by expanding upon the concept of Black placemaking and examining their virtual community-building through the themes of Black collectivism, building and cultivating community, and Blackness as existence and resistance. 

The analysis showed the researchers’ use of technology and virtual engagement to build a deliberate community was vital to their success as first-year doctoral students.  

Benson, Wallace, and Greer hope their research serves as a “beacon of hope” for current and future graduate students, as well as faculty.

“It highlights the ways community can be created and leveraged to better sustain themselves in times of despair and demonstrate the critical need for organizational change to combat the toxic influences of academic culture,” they wrote. 

The authors argue their expansion of the conversation about Black placemaking into a virtual space provides a frame for future institutional support for not only Black students, but students from other minoritized communities as well. 

Benson is also part of a School of Education research project examining health outcomes for Black women in academia. Wallace recently co-authored a study that illuminates some factors that influence Black men to pursue higher education in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Greer recently co-authored a paper that historicizes attacks on critical race theory in the United States.

Their full article, “‘We in this thang together’: Black First-Year Doctoral Students Transitioning during COVID,” is available here.

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