“For me, the Ph.D. is so much more than a Ph.D. It has been a spiritual journey, and my Christian faith is central to it, it’s like everything to me. I feel like with different things, whether it’s just a test or assignment, I look at things differently. God is shaping me, preparing me for something more than just the next text or paper. I’m being developed to do greater things.” Kelly Slay is a fourth year doctoral candidate, pursuing greater things for the state of Michigan with research focused on post Proposition 2 access to higher education.
Kelly was a student leader actively involved in raising awareness about the affirmative action cases taking place in 2003 while working toward her bachelor’s degree in Psychology at U-M. At that time, she gained a stronger interest in equity and education issues that stuck with her as she moved forward with her career after graduation.
She was moved to take a one year policy fellowship at the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law in Chicago that meant quitting her job in marketing to take a position that paid a third of the money she was making. She says, “Something in me was really called. I was supposed to be there for one year working on policy for low income families and children, but I stayed for four.” Along the way, she received a Master’s degree from DePaul University and worked in a number of educational organizations in Chicago, from community colleges to public schools to the GearUp program, designed to prepare low income first generation students for college.
She recalls, “Something in me was tugging, saying I had a lot more questions than I had answers. With the issues I saw particularly in public schools, I realized I needed credentials and the type of status that would allow me to participate in conversations that could create change. I realized I needed a Ph.D., and that brought me back to Michigan.”
She came back to a very different university. She says, “Life is different as a graduate student, but more than that, the campus climate was very different coming back. I didn’t see as many diverse students after Prop 2.”
“My scholarship centers on issues of race, diversity and equity in K-16 education with a particular focus on state and institution level policy on access to higher education and the implications of access and success for students of color. Through a combination of my research and faculty-led research I’ve been involved in, I’m exploring the development, adaptation and implementation of policies in various post-secondary contexts – community colleges, urban research universities and highly selective institutions.”
For Kelly’s dissertation, she is proposing to study and write a comparative case study of the implications of Michigan’s affirmative action policy on the state’s three R1 institutions, Michigan State University, Wayne State University and the University of Michigan. “We know about U-M here, but know a lot less about Wayne State or MSU, and there’s no research on those three as a collective. I’m interested in how admissions policies have changed, and who has changed them post-Proposition 2. I’m interested in the ways in which race is framed, diversity is framed, and how the varying institutional context shaped that. I want to determine how Proposition 2 has played out differently at each and what the implications are for the state of Michigan.”
In her spare time at the School of Education, Kelly served as the co-chair of Becoming Educators of Tomorrow, an organization that raises awareness around diversity and education and preparing our future leaders to meet challenges there. She has also served on various committees around diversity and says, “those have been really great experiences to work with faculty and staff in different ways, to work alongside them.” Still a student leader, Kelly gives back to those walking in her footsteps by mentoring undergraduates. She describes, “I love working with undergraduates and mentor a few informally each year. I really enjoy helping them navigate the University and help them figure out their plans after graduation.”
Most grad students credit conferences with key networks and opportunities, and Kelly agrees, attending conferences, whether they are education and research focused or are Christian or women’s conferences, whenever she can. Spending time with family occupies some of her downtime, including her 11 nieces and nephews, when she can visit her hometown of Detroit.
While her graduate years are very different from her undergraduate experience, she speaks of the community around her as being a pivotal part of her support system. She explains, “I don’t think anyone can survive grad school without the support of a community.” As a Rackham Merit Fellow, Kelly attended the Rackham Summer Institute, which she credits with helping her develop a group of grad students to stay in touch with. “I also have a great cohort – they’re amazing – so community in that way has been great, but grad school is an individual endeavor, so it sometimes feels lonely and isolating and can be very overwhelming.”
“When I look back, I’m such a different person than when I started the program: more aware, more sure of myself and of my interests. I knew what I came here to study but felt maybe I couldn’t be as honest as I wanted about my ideas, I thought I should temper that, but over time through great mentors, I was able to say no, this is who I am. I’m a very different than when I started in that respect.
“I have so many great mentors here at U-M and at Rackham. Rackham has been really great – Tabbye Chavous, Larry Rowley and Mark Kamimura and others in different departments around campus that have helped me to navigate this journey. I’m a first generation student from my undergraduate degree to my Ph.D., and had it not been for connecting with some mentors and advisors, I’d have been completely lost.
Going forward, Kelly says that academia is her primary interest, but she can see herself developing strong relationships with community partners. She says, “I want to be doing work that changes education in Detroit and focus my research on Michigan. It’s my contribution to my state.”