Psychology undergraduate student Alexandra Piper examines the importance of diversity for student success

An undergraduate research project by UC Santa Cruz psychology student shows how advancing diversity in higher education must begin in K-12 classrooms.

January 23, 2018



"Understanding and working towards promoting educational success in the Black community is an important first step in abolishing systematic oppressive cycles such as the educational gap and School-to-Prison Pipeline," said Alexandra Piper (Oakes, psychology and critical race and ethnic studies '19).

When Black high school students have Black teachers, they are more motivated to perform, engage, and strive towards higher education than students without, found UC Santa Cruz psychology undergraduate student Alexandra Piper in a study she conducted.

Piper’s study was part of an in educational psychology course she took with Christy M. Byrd, an assistant professor in the Psychology Department at UC Santa Cruz. The class culminated with an original research project that exemplified course themes of classroom motivation, diversity in context, and individual differences in education.

For Piper, a junior affiliated with Oakes college, the Black education experience is a deeply personal one.

“When I was growing up I had two split educational experiences. I spent half of my life in an urban school setting in a low-income neighborhood, and the other half of it in an affluent suburban town.  Despite what my mother would have expected – and hoped for, I was not more uplifted or encouraged in the suburban school setting than the urban one,” said Piper.

“I felt a sincere disconnect between my teachers and myself during this time because my identity was not being incorporated in classroom discussions. When I tried to take control of my own agency and advocate for myself in discussions regarding literature, the social sciences, or history; my commentary was regularly shut down and my voice marginalized,” Piper said. She remembered how her Black teachers, constantly encouraged her to pursue college at an early age and referred her into Gifted and Talented Education programs.

“I sincerely felt that they understood my identity and background. Whereas in the suburban school, teachers blatantly voiced disinterest in my academic progression by suggesting that I not even apply for a University of California and simply go to community college after graduation–despite me being on the honor roll all four years in high school.”

After Piper shared her previous experiences with other Black students at UC Santa Cruz, she discovered that others felt academically motivated when they had teachers they identified with. From those conversation, Piper found inspiration for her research project for Byrd’s class.

Piper wanted to know, did having Black teachers in high school lead to increased motivation? She discovered yes.

“There is a strong correlation that when Black students have Black teachers, they work, perform, and feel better,” said Piper. 

“I was really impressed with Alex’s project,” said Byrd. “We really need research at the college level and what Alex has done in such a short period of time–one quarter–is really exciting.”

To learn more about the influence of diversity in educational outcomes after high school, Piper reached out to student organizations on campus including the African Student Union, the Black Student Union, the Black Men’s/Women's Alliance, and the National Society of Black Engineers. With the help of these five student groups, Piper was able to survey almost 50 students. She split her sample into two sets: one group who had at least one Black teacher in high school; and the other group had no Black teachers. This was a critical distinction to assess academic motivation and comfort, shared Piper.

“This research is important because there is an egregiously low proportion of Black teachers instructing Black students, which can play into perception biases of the teacher/ student dynamic,” said Piper.

By looking at current trends, Piper was able to identify future opportunities.

“If we hope to see progress in diversifying college spaces, starting by diversifying educational workspaces would be a good practical start to begin with,” advised Piper.  

For her study, Piper also considered Byrd’s research about the influence of achievement-related characteristics on social outcomes in African American youth. In a 2014 study, Byrd and her co-authors found that children in classrooms high in both Afrocultural and mainstream values received higher reading and math achievement scores.  

"When I began my research initially, I was shocked to learn that most of the literature on how teacher match related to Black student motivation was scarce. The majority of research pertaining to my demographic has only been analyzed since the 2010s. Understanding and working towards promoting educational success in the Black community is an important first step in abolishing systematic oppressive cycles such as the educational gap and School-to-Prison Pipeline,” said Piper.

Piper hopes to continue her work in educational psychology while she is at UC Santa Cruz.

Over winter quarter, Piper will work with Hafsa Mohamed, a doctoral student in the Psychology Department on the UnGuide Project, a collaboration with City University of New York, the University of Minnesota, the University of Memphis, the University of Illinois at Chicago, the University of Georgia, and UC Santa Cruz, where undergraduate students from each campus will work together to develop an online resource designed to help first-generation students and students of color navigate and succeed in college.  

“As an aspiring psychologist, I am determined to make sure that my work intersects issues such as race, class, and gender in hopes of producing the most inclusive solutions possible for our community,” said Piper. In addition to pursuing a degree in psychology, Piper is also majoring in critical race and ethnic studies.