Bridgette Davis was on a solid professional trajectory in the field of education. This had included stints at Teach for America as well as at a Noble charter school in Chicago, where she found herself pondering the challenge of matching high school students to the educational institutions that best suited them.
"I've always been obsessed with why some kids have a very different experience of school than do others," she said. "These were the questions that just wouldn't leave me."
She had already earned a master's degree from the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration (SSA) and was the recipient of the Wilma Walker Award for outstanding work and for promise in future achievements in social work. The faculty were not the only ones who saw this promise. Davis, who received scholarship funding from the Point Foundation as a master's student, would continue to receive this funding as she began her work as a doctoral student at SSA.
Davis wanted to study the ways in which organizations exacerbate, replicate, or challenge social inequalities during key developmental transitions among low-income and marginalized people. She specifically wanted to examine how inequalities affect young adults' transition to adulthood as they are pursuing a college degree.
As soon as she began the SSA Doctoral Program, she began acquiring the analytical and methodological tools that would lay the foundation for "Figuring Futures," her dissertation-in-progress.
In this longitudinal, multi-level, long-range study, she is studying low-income, average-achieving high school graduates from the South Side of Chicago to better understand the mechanisms of inequality as students transition into adulthood and plan to attend a post-secondary institution. All of the students in her study graduated from Chicago's Noble charter schools and have an alumni coach and career counseling. Twenty-nine of the thirty-one students who she is following enrolled in 4-year colleges or universities. She has been interviewing all of the students during their transition from high school to better understand the various issues impacting their outcomes.
"Low-income, first-gen kids tend to know where their problems come from," she observes. "They just don't have the resources to fix these problems."
To conduct this data-intensive study, her dissertation research is supported by a grant from the Successful Pathways from School to Work initiative of the University of Chicago, funded by the Hymen Milgrom Supporting Organization. The latter not only financially supports her so she has time to conduct the research, but also "helps me pay for two of my own former students to work on the study with me."
In addition, Davis is receiving ongoing training as a Pre-Doctoral Fellow from the Committee on Education through a grant to the University from the Institute of Education Sciences.
She is utilizing this training while studying with professors who tackle issues of inequality as a focus of primary concern regardless of the case or context. "SSA was, for me, the right place because of that."
Two classes at the University complemented each other and changed her project: Professor Susan Lambert's "Inequality at Work" focused on employment; and "Social Theory and the Economy," taught by Gary Herrigel, the Paul Klapper Professor in the College and Division of Social Sciences. She relates, "Taking those two classes at the same time changed my thinking about the development of young people, especially working class and low-income folks. I'm much more attuned to issues of time and precarity, of predictability, of being known and knowing, than I would be had I not taken these courses."
Her dissertation committee reflects the interdisciplinary emphasis of both the University of Chicago and SSA, starting with her dissertation chair, Associate Professor Jennifer Mosley, whose research focuses on nonprofit organizations' role in advocacy. Davis's committee includes Associate Professor Gina M. Samuels, who studies identity development among transracial adoptees and the "aging out" of young adults from foster care, as well as SSA alumna Susan Stone, AB '89, AM '92, PhD '00, of UC-Berkeley. Stone's research focuses on social work in education and its impact on the academic progress of vulnerable youth in schools. Altogether, the research of these three faculty reflect the breadth of disciplinary input now shaping Davis's work, pushing her as well as "pushing the conversation."
Davis is now in her fourth year, and well on her way to completing her dissertation, having spent last summer collecting data. She plans to pursue an academic appointment after the completion of her dissertation to continue research on this and other developmental transitions, to design evidence-based interventions, and eventually to scale them via departmental and institutional leadership, federal policy advocacy, or service in public administration.
"At this point in my career, I'm eager to fight for more equitable and fulfilling pathways to a stable and thriving adulthood for all young people—this time not from within a K-12 school but from higher education and with an eye to scalable social policy. I see a real and viable possibility for creative pre-professional programs that not only meet the desires of young people to contribute but also meet the growing challenges of our communities—climate change, a large baby boom of aging adults requiring care, and the need for quality teaching, health, and child care in every neighborhood. Our young adults want to be, and must be, part of the solutions to these problems," says Davis.