Steven Johnson Jr. looks to deepen understanding of Black RAs’ experiences on campuses

Black resident assistants, particularly those at predominantly white institutions, navigate a unique set of circumstances and biases in the workplace. And yet, qualitative research on their experiences is relatively limited.

How do Black RAs make meaning of their radicalized experiences? What strategies do they utilize in their day-to-day duties and interactions? And what motivates them in their roles?

Through his doctoral studies in KU’s Higher Education Administration program, Steven Johnson Jr. is looking to fill these gaps in knowledge. Drawing on his own experiences as an RA and later as a full-time residence life staff member, Johnson hopes to shed light on this important and understudied topic.

“There is certainly an opportunity to continue to explore the experiences of Black RAs in research, especially in this time where racial tensions are differently amplified and when many campuses have expressed a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion,” says Johnson. “As Black RAs are both personally and professionally impacted by racial incidents, it will be important to learn how to better support them in their roles.”

Tell us what the focus of your research is.

The focus of my research is to understand how Black resident assistants at predominantly White institutions make meaning of their racialized experiences at work. The qualitative study inquires about their motivations to pursue this role, explores how they make meaning of racialized experiences, and investigates any help seeking strategies they utilize when navigating racialized experiences as an RA.

“The focus of my research is to understand how Black resident assistants at predominantly White institutions make meaning of their racialized experiences at work.”

How did you come to be interested in this topic? Why is it important?

Originally, I was interested in learning more about why there were few Black RAs on the campuses where I worked. When I was an undergraduate student, I served as the only Black RA in my building and within the community of residence halls in my area. Because of this, I often felt as though I navigated situations in my role where others lacked fully understanding of how different interactions impacted me. Later, I worked both as a graduate assistant at a public state institution, and a full-time staff member in residence life at a different university. In these roles I supervised RAs and led departmental initiatives. These positions gave me experience with connecting with Black RAs differently than I had when I was an RA.

Working with them to respond to biased incidents, engaging with them during staff training, connecting during team meetings, and in a variety of other interactions, I learned that their experiences as undergraduate staff members were not too dissimilar from mine. They navigated challenging interactions with residents, responding to tragic current events, balancing competing demands of academic and personal obligations, and feeling responsible for doing so without blemish. The pressure to do well in all areas became overwhelming. As I reflected on these experiences, I realized that there was little infrastructure to support the unique needs and experiences of Black RAs.

In researching about Black RAs, I found that the research was limited. Further, there are few studies that focus specifically on how Black RAs’ role and racial identities intersect when having to navigate their campus role. My goal is to contribute to the growing literature that addresses this timely topic and understudied population.

“As Black RAs are both personally and professionally impacted by racial incidents, it will be important to learn how to better support them in their roles.”

What’s one thing that you think everyone should take away from your research on this topic?

There is certainly an opportunity to continue to explore the experiences of Black RAs in research, especially in this time where racial tensions are differently amplified and when many campuses have expressed a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. As Black RAs are both personally and professionally impacted by racial incidents, it will be important to learn how to better support them in their roles.

Please tell us about your methods and the sources you’re using.

Semi-structured qualitative interviews are used for this study. Qualitative studies commonly incorporate interviewing, where people who have experience with the phenomenon of interest are met with and asked to elaborate on their perspectives (Marshall & Rossman, 2016). The participants of interest for this study are Black RAs who attend predominantly White institutions.

What advice can you share with other researchers on finding and securing funding?

There are a number of different funding sources available to graduate students that can be tapped into. My recommendation is to work with your faculty advisor or department to secure any support necessary in applying for these opportunities. I have seen many emails throughout the doctoral journey encouraging me to apply for different things. In all of them, I put my name in the hat and went from there! I was able to accept two different sources of funding since being a doctoral student, both of which have either helped me finance the research study or conference participation.

“I would like to see a greater attention on the ways national climate concerns permeate campus culture and impact the experiences of historically underrepresented populations.”

What changes, developments or discoveries would you like to see occur in your field during your lifetime?

I would like to see a greater attention on the ways national climate concerns permeate campus culture and impact the experiences of historically underrepresented populations. Moreover, this research should be done in a disaggregated approach, looking intentionally at specific social identities and at various intersections.

What’s the value of conducting research at KU and in the School of Education & Human Sciences?

I have found the faculty in the HESA program to be especially helpful in teaching, coaching and mentoring. Throughout my time in this doctoral program, I have shared my goals and they have been so supportive in helping me to achieve and actualize them. My advisor knew that I wanted experience with researching and being published and later welcomed me to complete a study with him. That study has inspired my own dissertation topic and the practice of writing a research article together equipped me to approach my own research proposal with more context and skills. Our faculty take their roles as educators and researchers seriously and that is reflected in the energy they give to supporting our academic journey.

“Our faculty take their roles as educators and researchers seriously and that is reflected in the energy they give to supporting our academic journey.”

Are you involved in any professional organizations? If so, which ones?

Professionally, I am involved with the American College Personnel Association (ACPA), where I recently completed by term as the immediate past chair of the Pan African Network (PAN). The PAN endeavors to provide programs and resources that service the needs of ACPA members who identify with — and support the causes of — the Pan African community. Prior to engaging in this three-year chair term (as chair-elect, then chair, and now as immediate past chair), I served with the membership and awards committees. I also have responsibilities with the Coalition for Multicultural Affairs and the Coalitions and Networks groups within ACPA. In addition to my formal leadership responsibilities with this organization, I have presented several conference sessions throughout my time in the association and had three accepted presentation sessions at the most recent annual convention this past March.

What are your favorite non-academic activities/hobbies?

Outside of work and school, I enjoy spending time at my home gym, Orange Theory Fitness. The Lawrence location has some of the best members and coaches and I have found that space to be incredibly affirming. It has been great to build community and establish a network outside of my other commitments. Additionally, I enjoy baking, dining out with friends, visiting family in Kansas City, and traveling!

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