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My Student Experience: Doctoral Student Chelsea Smith ‘23PHD Shares the Challenges in Higher Education for Formerly Incarcerated College Students as Co-author of Recently Published Article

Chelsea Smith

This is part of a monthly “My Student Experience” series in which the NC State College of Education highlights the student experience through profiles, stories and videos.

Chelsea Smith ‘23PHD, who is pursuing her Ph.D. in educational leadership, policy, and human development in the higher education program area of study, is passionate about equity and diversity in higher education for underserved populations.

Her main research interests are around the development of equity and diversity in STEM undergraduate majors, researching the experiences of Black collegiate women in STEM programs, as well as Black women professionals in STEM support roles.

But when Smith had the opportunity to expand her research and work with her mentor, Terrence McTier, Ph.D., an assistant professor in counseling and higher education at Ohio University, she jumped at the opportunity. Being invited to be part of a project where voices are amplified and the experiences of marginalized students are enhanced is an important aspect of her work.

Smith, McTier and a group of scholars studied the experiences of formerly incarcerated college students. They found that formerly incarcerated students or students with criminal records are an often forgotten, vulnerable and marginalized population on many campuses.

“Students who were changing their lives and pursuing education could not even obtain safe and reliable housing on their campuses. Institutions and state governing agencies need to take a more critical approach when it comes to restorative opportunities for students and to eradicate this discrimination,” Smith said. “And most importantly, I also commend our participants who were still achieving in higher education despite their circumstances.”

This work led to Smith’s first major publication as co-author of “Full-Time Students With Part-Time Benefits: How Being Denied On-Campus Housing Affects College Students With Criminal Records,” in the Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory & Practice.

“It feels great to have my research published in a journal not only used by scholars but practitioners as well. My goal with my research is to create practical, tangible and accessible research to improve the experiences of college students and this journal was the perfect fit,” she said.

Through her research, Smith says she learned so much from the process. She is grateful and honored that the students who were interviewed trusted her and her team to share their stories and experiences with them. And she wanted to do them justice by “amplifying their voices.”

McTier has devoted the majority of his academic career to studying this population and it was important for Smith to continue to do important work for some of the most vulnerable students. And through this experience, she was able to expand research methods that she hopes to incorporate into her dissertation work.

“I appreciate the opportunity from him, although this is not my main research agenda, I was able to develop my methodological practice which was also a goal of mine. We were able to use some unique methods, such as Layered Structural Narrative Analysis to analyze and share our participants’ narratives,” she said.

Smith is excited to continue to work with McTier and to strengthen her qualitative methodological knowledge. She hopes to have more articles published as she works toward a career as a professor at a teaching or comprehensive research institution or as an education consultant for a STEM education organization or college access organization.

“Being published in a major higher education journal was just a dream or goal a little over a year ago, so to see this work come to fruition is very rewarding and empowering. Imposter syndrome often creeps in but I am grateful for mentors like Dr. McTier and my advisor Dr. [Joy] Gaston Gayles to motivate me and share opportunities such as this with me,” Smith said.

Smith currently serves as a graduate assistant in the college’s higher education program.