Three University of New Hampshire (UNH) faculty members received grants from the prestigious Spencer Foundation for education research. UNH College of Liberal Arts (COLA) Dean Michele Dillon expressed her pride and said she was “excited” for the faculty awarded in a UNH Today announcement.  

The Spencer Foundation is the only national foundation focused solely on funding education research. Founded in 1962, the foundation’s intention, according to its mission statement, is to “investigate ways in which education…can be improved.” Since the beginning of its grant making in 1971, it has awarded grants totaling over $500 million. 

The three UNH recipients this year are Elyse Hambacher, Andrew Coppens, and Kabria Baumgartner, all members of the COLA faculty.  

Hambacher, an associate professor of education, is focusing her research on “the use of justice-oriented perspectives to improve equity in elementary education and in the preparation of pre-service and in-service educators.” In other words, Hambacher said, she is “interested in understanding how white teachers and administrators in mostly White school districts think about and enact their commitments toward racial justice in their work.” 

The grant from the Spencer Foundation will allow Hambacher to conduct research into how education professionals in two predominantly white school districts “engage with concepts of race, anti-racism, and whiteness.” 

Hambacher applied for this grant over the summer of 2020, when protests were widespread across the country in the wake of the killing of George Floyd and the country was facing a racial reckoning. Hambacher said that these events emphasize “the crucial work of white teachers in predominantly white communities, so that white people can act as agents of change against racism.” 

She arrived at this research topic after collaborating on a review of literature for race-visible teacher education and finding that “very little research pertained to preparing White teachers to address race and racism in predominantly White school communities”—as opposed to preparing educators to work with students of color, a topic which Hambacher found had much more research. 

“If society is to combat systemic racism, teachers in predominantly white communities must be prepared to educate their students about race,” Hambacher said.  

Part of Hambacher’s motivation to study this topic was spurred by her experiences at a culturally diverse high school in Miami, FL. Witnessing what she described as inequities there inspired her passion for social justice. 

“I am truly honored to receive such a prestigious award,” Hambacher said of the grant itself. “I applied for this grant because I believe in the importance of the work and I’m grateful for the Spencer Foundation’s financial support which will provide me the time and energy to work on a project I’m passionate about.”  

Coppens, an assistant professor of education, along with doctoral student Sarah Jusseaume, will be utilizing his Spencer Foundation grant to explore how young people – especially first-generation college students – from rural areas navigate the process of pursuing higher education and the messages they receive about it.  

Jusseaume said, “Our work is designed to understand how culture influences students’ identity and sense of self and also how they resist dominant and strongly ideological messages about what they should do and instead work to construct new possibilities for themselves.” 

Coppens and Jusseaume are working to explore “how rural youth navigate different, and often competing messages about what they should do with their futures,” as Jusseaume put it. They are conducting this work with the support of a research team including associate professor of recreation management and policy Jayson Seaman, associate professor of human development and family studies Erin Sharp and assistant professor of recreation management and policy Cindy Hartman. 

“We are interested in exploring how they work to maintain a connection to home while also finding a sense of belonging at university,” Jusseaume said. “This feeling of being ‘in between’ two different worlds can lead to a feeling of disconnection from both home and school settings.” 

“These students are on a path for which there is no clear map, leaving them to write new stories or narratives which differ from what is traditional or expected,” Jusseaume said. 

Coppens said that many first-generation college students from rural areas have many differing experiences with going to college, with some enjoying their chance to leave their hometowns and others feeling torn between a sense of belonging at home and the opportunities of higher education. “Unfortunately,” Coppens said, “the message that many rural first-generation students likely get is that one’s future after high school is an either/or – stay vs. leave.” 

With that in mind, Coppens said, “We are excited to learn how these students are transcending the either/or to find ways to be and do more than just one thing; we think having a background in rural communities might even help students to do so.” 

Jusseaume believes that this research is vital to supporting these students and helping institutions support these students. Researching how youth from rural communities navigate the challenges of balancing expectations about their futures “will help institutions better support all students but specifically highlight the important work rural youth and communities are doing to re-configure rurality and rural identity into a strength instead of a deficit,” Jusseaume said.  

This last point about rural identity is central to the research, according to Coppens. He said that many Americans have disparaged rural communities and see rural experiences as less societally valuable. “There’s so much writing out there that disparages rural families and communities, whether political scapegoating or otherwise, based on very narrow or misleading evidence,” Coppens said. 

As such, he said, “We’re trying to find evidence to reverse that narrative by studying what rural first-generation students are doing to not only succeed in college, but also to do so in ways that reinvest their knowledge and skills in rural livelihoods.” 

Both Coppens and Jusseaume have experience researching and working with underprivileged communities, including Indigenous and immigrant groups and multilingual students. Additionally, Jusseaume herself is a first-generation college student who went through many of the same experiences as the rural students in their research, including feeling “disconnected and out of place, never really connecting on campus.” This, they said, has greatly informed their research. 

“My hope,” Jusseaume said, “is that this project makes a positive impact on how colleges support non-traditional students and highlights the unique strengths that they each bring to university.” 

Jusseaume believes that receiving the Spencer Foundation’s funding means that “they are acknowledging the importance of rural and first-generation student identity and its role in positive academic outcomes,” especially due to its “long history of funding critical and significant educational research.” 

Coppens similarly said that the Spencer Foundation “is often on the cutting edge of educational research and is led by several absolutely brilliant thinkers in the field,” and that its funding of this particular project is indicative of the need to invest research into similar topics of global importance.  

“Many of us are in one way or another dis-placed, especially for those of European- or African-heritage in the US,” he said. “So, finding ways to sustainably reconnect to relational networks, community, and land is becoming an existentially important task for all groups. The many varieties of rural communities worldwide may have a lot to teach in this respect.” 

The final UNH recipient of a Spencer Foundation grant is Kabria Baumgartner, an associate professor of English and American studies. She will be utilizing the fund to help support a research and book project about Robert Morris, a prominent 1800s thinker on African-American education. 

“My research aims to explore the history of Black educational justice and to consider how these ideas might be fruitful today as we work to democratize public education,” Baumgartner said. 

Baumgartner said that she’d always been fascinated by education, by “the idea that education is a great equalizer; education is a civil right; the link between education, democracy, and citizenship; and the Northeast as the cradle of public education.” 

In her research, she said, “I aim to probe some of these ideas further, to complicate them, and think about how we can ameliorate educational inequities.” 

“It is a huge honor to receive this prestigious grant from the Spencer Foundation,” Baumgartner said. “The Spencer Foundation has supported my research in the past, and I remain grateful.” 

Photo courtesy of The Spencer Foundation