Select Page
Home » Discover Rackham » Student Spotlight: Alaina Neal

“I come from a home where my parents always emphasized the importance of education. My dad would always say that everyone in the family had a job to do, and that school was my job. If I ever wanted to make anything of myself, get out of his house and be successful then I needed to do well in school. I never imagined in my wildest dreams I’d be in this space getting my Ph.D.”

Originally from Long Beach, California, she says she went to the University of California Berkeley for her undergraduate degree almost on a whim. She had little knowledge about Cal until she was invited to a weekend student recruitment event where she realized that she had been offered the opportunity to attend a top public university. While at Cal, she was honored to be a McNair Scholar, a role that introduced her to academic research and planted the seed that she could pursue her interest in teaching in a university setting. All of this led her to Ann Arbor: “If it hadn’t been for Cal and McNair, I never would have ended up here. It almost seems like I’m here by fate. I ultimately feel very, very blessed to be here. I’m grateful people saw in me that I can do this work and that I had something valuable to contribute within academia. It’s great to be in a space where I can explore the topics that I am so passionate about.”

While at Cal, Alaina worked with high school aged youth within in-school and out of school settings and she says these experiences drew her to her work. She explains, “I’d be in schools and see the challenges that African American students were facing—some that mirrored my own experiences and many that did not. But what always stood out to me was that young Black women in some ways were treated very differently than their male peers. I would see Black girls sent out of classrooms in droves. If one girl acted up, her whole peer group would get kicked out. When a young man misbehaved it was treated more on an individual basis. I went to read research about it, and there was nothing. Yes, there was research on African American students but nearly all of it focused on the experiences of young men. I wondered, how in all of this research I could not read about my own experience as a young Black girl in school or those of the students I was working with? Since that moment, I have been committed to better understanding the experiences of young Black women in schools and haven’t left that path.”

Alaina came to Michigan for the Master’s of Education as a precursor to the doctoral program. She says that though she had not initially planned on pursuing a separate Master’s degree prior to the doctorate, one conversation with her soon-to-be advisor changed that. She says, “I talked to my amazing advisor, Carla O’Connor and she sold me on this space. Not only was she incredibly kind but she talked about Michigan as a place where we all were involved together as a community, not just in the School of Education but part of a larger group of people in pursuit of equity and access. After that conversation, I chose to come get a Master’s here rather than go straight into my doctoral studies because I wanted to be a part of that. Ultimately I stayed because, well, after being here, there’s no other place I’d rather be!

A third year doctoral candidate, Alaina’s work focuses on educational access and opportunity for students from marginalized backgrounds. Her current project focuses on better understanding the nature of the school experiences of African American girls who face difficulty attaining academic success, and the role that various contexts play in these experiences. She says, “In a sense, I’m trying to gauge how these Black girls see school and education, how others see school operating in their lives – their peers, families, teachers, and how all of it matters in how they navigate their school contexts. Importantly, how can we improve? The goal is to help schools serve the needs of this group in a way they aren’t already.” She says, “Going to school in my own life wasn’t always easy. People think that because I’ve made it this far that somehow it has always been easy for me and that I faced no challenges. And I think this is because there is a myth about Black women out there that says that all of us are resilient, all the time, in the face of all things. But this isn’t true. In some cases Black girls can overcome challenges, but not all of us, not all the time, and not all obstacles. A lot of the focus goes into praising the fact that we can be resilient but I want to push the question if we should have to be so resilient in the first place. This has informed all of the work I do now. People say when you start grad school that the things you think about in the beginning aren’t what you do down the line, but that’s not the case for me. I came in wanting to better understand the issues impacting the educational opportunity of Black girls and that’s exactly what I’m doing.”

She says of her work, “At this point, it’s pretty exploratory, actually kind of novel. With all this press about Black kids and gaps, you’d think there’d be work on how Black girls are doing. There is a lot on Black males, and a lot of funding for programs to support them. It’s not the same for Black girls. That lets you know where we’re at.”

Since there’s not much research that’s been completed, Alaina says it’s almost scary to pick a particular dissertation topic. She explains, “I feel like there’s so much to be done and so many places to start. Not being overwhelmed has been challenging, but I’m very excited to bring attention to these girls and their needs. I can do this research for my whole career.

Currently Alaina spends 2-3 days a week volunteering in a local high school. “The girls I’m working with are fantastic. They are really passionate about their education and life. They just want to grab hold of anything they can – opportunities and experiences. They are just hungry for that. I see in some spaces that their energy is stifled; it is read as an entirely different energy than what I see as passion for life and learning. Instead, it’s read as you’re just too loud, you can’t sit still. I can see them having to deal with those differences and representations. They need help figuring out what to do when they like learning but don’t like school, and they often turn to me to tell them what to do. I’m honored that I can be in this space and serve in a capacity to work with them to figure it out. I was there once, and I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t have folks like me say ‘here, I can help you’. I can make it a little easier. I’m inspired and motivated, and I think most of all I’m really happy with what I’m doing with my life.”

For Alaina, it was a huge adjustment coming to graduate school straight from her undergraduate institution. She explains, “Then, life was school, but here, school is a part of who you are but you try to not make it everything. Grad school is hard and your ego takes a lot of punches. This is really a process of being remade. I came in as Alaina, and when I leave I won’t just be Alaina, I’ll leave as a scholar and an activist.”

She spends a lot of time talking to family to lessen the stress of academia. She says, “We’re very close, and a lot of them don’t always understand what I’m doing exactly, which is actually good because I can get away from being deep inside my own work.” Her family helps ground her in her research as well: “I look at my niece and think about what could be for her, this bright, young Black girl.” Because her family is so tight knit, there are times when it is difficult to be so far away from them but she says, “I’ve gotten this far in my journey and I feel like I have to be doing this right now, even if it means that I’m not geographically close to them.”

She’s got family at Michigan, though. She says, “Rackham is the best support system I could ask for. I have so many people in my corner there who care about me. I have funding and that allows me not to worry about anything other than being the best scholar that I can be. That has made all the difference and takes away so much stress. It allows me to be here in the moment all the time.

“I feel so well supported. I know grad students at other places absolutely do not have that. I have so many communities here, so many different ways to feel connected. I feel like I have a group of people who are rooting for me. I tell others that this is the Michigan Difference. It makes it all worth it being here in this weather.” she laughs.

Alaina sees herself settling back in California after completing her doctorate, pursuing a role that combines teaching, research, and community activism. She adds, “I love what I do here and love thinking about it, but for me it all would feel empty if I didn’t get to work with the folks I care about. I get so much energy from being around those girls. I hope in the future I’d be able to do all things I do now as a graduate student but in an academic position, and hopefully bring more attention to their needs.”