Robin Phelps-Ward: The Science of Racial Belonging

Robing Phelps-Ward standing on Library Bridge

As a daughter of a member of the U.S. Navy, Robin Phelps-Ward moved often during childhood.

Florida. Virginia. Connecticut. Missouri. She worked to find community in each place she went.

“I have always been hyperaware of my color,” she says. “I have grown up in predominately white institutions. I was the only black woman in my high school class.”

Now an assistant professor of higher education and student affairs, Phelps-Ward is analyzing the feeling of belonging among faculty and students of color and learning their experiences of community, climate and identity. The goal is to support underrepresented students and faculty academically and professionally through the examination of programs and systems within institutions of higher education.

Working with the Clemson Graduate School, Phelps-Ward is leading the Action Research Collective (ARC), a group of nine students and a postdoctoral researcher, who will examine the experiences of graduate students of color at Clemson. The research could lead to increased support and expanded professional development opportunities for underrepresented students.

Throughout the spring semester, members of the ARC team will interview students of color and ask participants to take photographs that illustrate their experiences as graduate students of color.

“The photos elicit the narratives,” Phelps-Ward says. “The ultimate goal is to get policymakers to react to these stories, to react to these photos, to do something. If our research finds that students see a space as an impediment, for example, we hope that will evoke change.”

The Action Research Collective is presenting its findings in Houston at the American College Personnel Association Conference in March, the Clemson University Graduate Student Symposium in early April, and the International Congress of Qualitative Theory in May.

The findings from the team’s research could help Clemson and other universities develop better support systems for underrepresented students. As a scholar who studies mentoring programs for students of color, Phelps-Ward says she has many questions: “How do you match mentors and students? How do you train mentors? What kind of activities do you set up? How do you ease the difficulty of cross-cultural mentoring relationships?”

Phelps-Ward has experience developing and leading mentoring programs while working in student affairs and pursuing her doctorate at Ball State University. When she was a graduate student at Murray State University, Phelps-Ward was a member of the McNair Scholars Program, a U.S. Department of Education initiative to increase the number of underrepresented students who obtain doctorate degrees. In 2016, she was awarded the Ball State University Alumni Association Distinguished Dissertation award for her dissertation, “Formal Mentoring Programs to Support Students of Color in the Academy: A Phenomenological Analysis of Student and Faculty Experiences.”

“One of the big takeaways was that institutions need to incorporate policies and systems to incentivize and reward mentoring because we know it supports students psycho-socially, we know it helps retention, and we know it leads students into graduate schools,” she says.

Among many research projects, Phelps-Ward also is studying how black faculty and staff are affected by student-led, race-based campus activism, which Clemson experienced during student protests in 2016. Additionally, Phelps-Ward is co-facilitating a series of diversity curriculum and pedagogy lab workshops on campus to examine issues related to diversity while exploring how these issues might best be tackled in a classroom setting.

“I want to be in the best position I can to increase support for students who are minoritized on college campuses,” she says. 


The Big Chop

Robin Phelps-Ward once cut off all of her hair.

“The Big Chop” marked a return to her natural roots, figuratively and literally. Years of chemical hair treatments had masked her natural curls for straighter locks easier to comb and style. Phelps-Ward is not alone. Many black women conceal their natural hair for years amid pressure to assimilate to societal beauty standards that align with the naturally straight hair common in white women.

“Black women are told their natural hair is not professional,” Phelps-Ward says.

The Big Chop — and restoring their natural hair — has become a social movement. Phelps-Ward has been studying this phenomenon since 2013 and is writing a paper to discuss the impact going natural has on black women.

“The Big Chop has prompted them to think more about their racial identity, to think more about their heritage, to think more about their health and more about how they positively role model body-positivity and self-love,” Phelps-Ward says.

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