Oberlin Blogs

The Mellon Dive

February 22, 2014

Alexandria Cunningham ’16

With spring semester in full swing, I cannot help but to look forward to the summer. After all, there are warm sunny days, long nights, good company and many a memory to be made. Despite missing my family and friends for another couple of months or so, I am overjoyed at all the knowledge that is about to drop my way. I get to spend my entire summer falling in love with my research and all of its respective challenges. Ya girl is officially swimming in scholarly seas, so here we go on the Mellon Dive.

For those who do not know, I was recently selected to be a part of the 2013-2014 Mellon Mays Undergraduate Research Fellows cohort (yes, we do official titles over here). I already blogged about my initial experience so what I want to do now is give folks a better idea of my research and where I hope to go with it.

The Initial Dive: Research Topic(s)
Broadly, my research is racial stratification in the urban education system with a focus on the Black achievement gap. What I enjoy about my approach is that it is multi-directional and intersectional. It is important for me to have a firm grasp on what the scholarly literature has to say about Black achievement. Through a critical meta-analysis of this literature, I hope to identify answers to such basic questions as: What is the gap? Why does it exist? What factor(s) maintains it? Can it ever be fixed? In the very least, my main priority is to be well versed with theoretical answers so that I have a heightened sense of awareness when I delve into larger, intersecting questions of Black educational attainment.

Outside of my mass literature review, I am committed to conducting comparative empirical studies of two urban area high schools, mainly in my hometown of Chicago and possibly in New Orleans. Originally, I thought of using my high school as a case example of how black achievement is played out in an institution undergoing much transition. Then, my time in New Orleans opened me up to a new educational dynamic that I am interested in exploring further as well. I am still bouncing ideas around and working out the remaining kinks but this is where my dive begins.

The Swim: Intentions and Motivations
In taking stock of my own educational experience, I realize how privileged I am to have spent so much time in private schools. The type of education I received within this space prepared me well for the liberal arts setting I am in at Oberlin. At the same time, leaving the "upper echelon" system was devastating for me because I did not know what to make of Chicago Public Schools. I had no idea of what it could and could not offer to me and that was unnerving. What I saw in the limited time I was in public schools was a) students are not educated the same; b) black students, specifically, seem to have a disproportionate amount of unaddressed challenges that adversely impact their educational attainment; and c) I am extremely privileged to not have had that reality until the end of my high school career.

So to keep it short, a lot of my Mellon research is rooted in my desire to sort out my own educational journey. I am trying to understand the how and the why of where I came from. How or what did I do to "make it out"? Why is it that so many people who look like and come from the same places as me are not in college with me? What is holding them back? What pushes me forward? What does my community think of it? And what does society tell them (and me) about what we can and cannot do?? I do not have definitive answers to any of these questions yet, but please believe I am always searching for them.

Making It Through the Marathon: Nia and Ujima
Living in Afrikan Heritage House and interacting with other members of SOY and ABUSUA offer really unique opportunities for me to find community and deep conversation. In our last ABUSUA meeting, we discussed one principle of Kwanzaa, Nia (purpose), and how we find our purpose on Oberlin's campus as black individuals. One of the many wonderful things that came out of that dialogue was that I articulated and reaffirmed my purpose to my community and myself. My purpose is in mentoring and leadership--using my education, insight and know-how to return to my communities and share in that informed position. My responsibility to my community is to help it do better by knowing better, by learning the skill-sets that will take them to another level, by having mentors to help them identify the path "out" and all of that.

Nia has three charges, accountability, responsibility and support, so I look to Ujima (collective work and responsibility) to better contextualize it. The foundation for what community-building looks like can be found in Nia; it explains how the individual "I" becomes a part of the collective "we" through identifying what our talents are. Yes, it is a personal journey to figure out what your talents might be and how they are useful to others. Beyond just you, everyone in your community is engaging in this process. Here is where Ujima comes in.

We are working to build our own communities by pouring into them and making them better. As a member of this campus, I have an obligation to support and develop my community both here and home. My support comes from both of my communities and it will sustain the course of my research. My journey has purpose and intention (Nia) and is supported by all those who grow, learn and engage with me (Ujima). This research is not just for me, it is for my community, for the generations that come after me and for the ones before me who allowed me to be in this place to do it. So I will leave you with this:

"Yes, in all my research, the greatest leaders looked inward and were able to tell a good story with authenticity and passion." ~Deepak Chopra

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