PhD Alumna Jenay Willis Receives National Dissertation Award for Rural Education Research

Jenay Willis, a 2023 alumna of the University of Pittsburgh School of Education’s PhD program in Higher Education, received the prestigious Chance Memorial Research Award from the National Rural Education Association (NREA). She will receive the award at the NREA annual meeting in November 2023.

The NREA is a national nonprofit organization that addresses rural health concerns through advocacy, educational initiatives, and research. Annually, the NREA acknowledges the outstanding achievements of recent doctoral graduates whose PhD dissertations make substantial contributions to rural education and address pressing contemporary issues in this domain.

“Receiving this award feels surreal to me because I originate from a small rural town that has instilled in me the value of humility,” says Willis. “This recognition serves as a poignant reminder that home is a constant presence within me. It underscores the significance of my research, which is deeply rooted in community engagement. My aspiration is that, through this award, particularly Black students from rural areas can perceive me as a potential role model.”

As a postdoctoral fellow specializing in race and reconciliation at Texas Christian University, Willis has gained recognition for her exceptional dissertation titled “We Gotta Think About Our Community as a Collective”: A Youth Participatory Action Research Study to Address Rural Black Students’ College-Going Culture Experiences.”

Her dissertation delves into the multifaceted aspects of the broader rural community, encompassing rural high schools, various family members (both immediate and extended, as well as chosen family), community stakeholders, local organizations, and college access initiatives within the community. It critically analyzes how these elements collectively impact the access of rural Black students to higher education.

“In my dissertation research, my study involved Black students from rural communities who took charge of their own higher education access,” says Willis. “This approach challenged traditional research methods by emphasizing shared power and dismantling hierarchical structures. The students collaborated to create an action plan, presenting the significance of our research to school administrators, including principals and counselors.”

She continued: “This process also involved a Q&A session highlighting the importance of using youth participatory action research (YPAR) as a critical qualitative methodology to shape and potentially enhance rural Black students’ access to higher education. YPAR empowered the student collaborators to drive change and be recognized as experts in their own experiences of navigating higher education access.”

Willis says her time with Pitt Education provided foundational tools for her dissertation.

Key courses at Pitt that shaped her dissertation included “Black Educational Thought,” taught by Dr. Elon Dancy and Chris Wright; “Advanced Qualitative Methodology,” instructed by Dr. Hayley Weddle and Dr. Jennifer Russell; and “Neighborhood and Community Development,” led by Dr. Sabina Deitrick from Pitt’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs.

Willis says the classes equipped her with essential tools to conduct research from a collectivist and community-driven perspective, emphasizing the centrality of people, places, and ideas.

“I’d also like to express my deep gratitude to the distinguished faculty members who have been instrumental in this journey, especially my dissertation chair, Dr. Darris Means,” says Willis. “Dr. Means saw potential in me that I sometimes couldn’t see in myself, serving as a role model. My aspiration is to pay it forward and be that guiding light for generations to come.”

Guided by a commitment to community service and deeply influenced by the intersections of her identity as a woman, a person of Black heritage, and hailing from a rural background in the South, Willis’ unwavering dedication is the driving force behind her work.