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Postdoctoral researcher receives dissertation of the year award

Janet Kiplinger Ciccone
February 27, 2018

An EHE postdoctoral researcher has received the 2018 Marylu K. McEwen Dissertation of the Year Award from the American College Personnel Association (ACPA).

Zak Foste, who won for his study in higher education and student affairs, will accept the award at the annual ACPA convention March 11-14 in Houston.

Zak Foste

The competitive award is bestowed each year on a dissertation that demonstrates scholarly excellence and makes a substantial contribution to knowledge in the field of student affairs or student services in higher education.

Foste’s study addresses the ways white undergraduate students interpret and give meaning to race, racism and whiteness. He was motivated to conduct the study by his “personal experiences growing up in predominantly white environments,” he said.

“My own undergraduate experience revealed to me the unique potential of higher education in challenging white people to think about race and whiteness in more nuanced, complex ways. But how do we do that in a way that emphasizes the always unfinished, lifelong process of unlearning? Unlearning such conditioning cannot be reduced to mere content mastery.”

Foste gathered his data during a time of heightened student activism around the nation, as well as highly divisive rhetoric during the 2016 presidential campaign.

“His focus on white racial identity and whiteness is extremely timely,” said Professor Susan R. Jones, Foste’s advisor, “given both historical and contemporary examples of racism, incivility and intolerance at many colleges and universities around the United States.

“Examining the construction of whiteness and the meaning white students make of race and racism holds the potential to shed light on complex issues that continue to be vexing for higher education,” she said. “Many initiatives, both curricular and co-curricular, are launched on college campuses to promote awareness of race and racism, but very few of them approach these designs with white students in mind.”

Jones also finds Foste’s receipt of the award especially meaningful. “It is named for Dr. Marylu McEwen, my advisor and dissertation chair at the University of Maryland,” she said. “Zak’s dissertation research is very congruent with her scholarly commitments and values.”

Student affairs educators should shift their focus from examining individual intention to exploring systemic, institutionalized racism and how historical legacies of racism have created unequal opportunities.

– Zak Foste

How the study was conducted

Foste interviewed 14 undergraduates who self-identified as white and were between the ages of 18 and 24. The student were nominated for the study by faculty and staff who believed them to be particularly reflective about matters of race and racism.

Many participants in the study were heavily involved on campus, be it as resident assistants, in Greek life, leadership organizations or in service-learning programs.

Unlike most studies on the subject, Foste examined not only how white student leaders made sense of race and whiteness, but also how these understandings either contributed to, or at times worked to disrupt, racially hostile campus climates.

Findings and recommendations: Promoting awareness of race and racism

One of the most important findings, Foste said, is the preoccupation of student leaders with being seen as “good white people.” The students frequently relied on their positions of leadership and corresponding experiences, such as multicultural trainings, workshops and coursework, as evidence of their own “goodness.”

The implication was that they felt they were progressive white student leaders who needed to educate other, less-aware white peers on campus. As student leaders, they rarely reflected on the importance of unlearning their own racial conditioning.

“What is important is that student affairs educators, faculty and staff recognize how strong white students’ desires for innocence can be,” Foste said, “especially in social justice education contexts. They don’t want to be seen as racist or bad people.

“I think this is especially true for our student leaders on campus, who, for a variety of reasons, feel they stand apart from other, less-involved students on campus in their level of racial awareness.”

Foste recommends that campuses move beyond surface-level, sanitized conversations to a more deeply engaged understanding of race, especially if there is limited time, as in resident assistant trainings, service-learning programs and diversity workshops.

"Student affairs educators should shift their focus from examining individual intention to exploring systemic, institutionalized racism and how historical legacies of racism have created unequal opportunities," he said.

"This approach may reduce students’ defensiveness and resistance, seen during his study interviews, by envisioning white students in a system much larger than themselves."

Readings, videos and activities that articulate how racism and white supremacy are ingrained in America can shift the conversation from abhorrent, racist individuals to a larger system that we are all responsible for challenging.

Deep engagement of this magnitude takes institutional buy-in from leadership, Foste said. It requires the time and resources necessary to critically examine issues of race and whiteness in a sustained, developmentally appropriate way.


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