Recent education policy studies graduate wins a master's research award

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Kerri Musick earned her master's degree from Penn State's Department of Education Policy Studies in May 2017 and is gainfully employed in Virginia, but the investment she made in her capstone project is still paying off.

Musick, who was a first-generation college student, researched that topic until she was able to eloquently tell the narratives of other first-generation students at Penn State. Urged to enter that project in a national contest — despite having to trim it to 3,500 words — Musick recently won the Gerald Saddlemire Master's Research Award and the $400 that goes with it.

"Kerri proposed a study of first-generation college students for the capstone project, and I knew that, as a first-generation college student herself, it was an important and visceral undertaking for her — far more than the final assignment of her master's student career," said Associate Professor of Education David Guthrie.

"That's also likely why it was such an exceptional piece of work; she was 'in' the story to be sure, though the voices heard in the paper were those of the students she interviewed. My sense is that, as she wrote the paper, she was somehow aware that their voices were hers as well," Guthrie said.

Musick was hired as the coordinator for experiential learning with the President's Leadership Program at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia. In this role, she conducts some life-coaching sessions, advises the Raising Educational Awareness Through Compassion and Humanity project (REACH) and supports one-day service initiatives, internship reporting, leadership programming and more.

The ability to handle that particular workload emanated from her master's program, she said.

"I think there will always be the dark part of my brain that whispers, 'Are you sure you can do this?''' Musick said. "A lot of my time in Penn State's program was about learning to challenge that impostor syndrome. The rigor of the program, the incredible intellect of my cohort, and constant, unwavering support from our faculty made me take a hard look in the mirror before hitting 'submit' on a job application.

"Penn State's program made me get honest about the things I needed from a workplace, colleagues and supervisor. It also made me take credit for my own talents and articulate that in a way that communicates passion and purpose. It undeniably helped during my job search, and I attribute that to part of the reason I'm finding a lot of meaning in the work I'm doing now."

But the work then on the first-generation students opened her eyes — and her heart — and allowed her to make her way into other people's lives … people just like her. "I am a first-generation college student and an important part of working in student affairs is showing up in your own truth, and as I did that, I ended up building relationships with undergraduates at Penn State who were also first-gen," Musick said.

"Once I heard more of their stories, my heart ached for their narratives to be shared. One interview led to another, and by the end of it, I was up to my eyeballs in transcriptions and literature reviews for my master's capstone project.''

She said she once facilitated a focus group and one of the participants expressed surprise that other people were going through what he was as a first-generation student. "The biggest finding I made was that research is advocacy, catharsis and truth-telling," Musick said. "It helps make people's stories legitimate and not something they made up. That was my personal, most revealing finding from the study.''

From the academic angle, she said the most revealing finding from the study is how little work would need to be done in order for first-generation college students to gain more collegiate cultural capital upon entering Penn State.

"The infrastructure already exists, it's just a matter of tweaking things," Musick said. "For example, many parents of first-gen students don't have the ability to go to orientation because they can't take time off from work, lacking transportation, the cost of getting a hotel, etc. Instead of missing out on critical information that could help support their student, the parent session could be live streamed, posted on YouTube, and distributed to parents that weren't able to make it.''

She hopes to continue doing research on first-generation college students. "There is so much still left to learn about this population of students," Musick said. "It was hard to narrow the scope of my capstone so that it would be a manageable workload for a semester-long project. I opened up a can of worms that, one day, will look more like a dissertation."

Overall, it looked like a winner in the eyes of the Saddlemire award committee. "I am honored, humbled and so grateful; I have had several mentors who took me under their wing and invested in me," Musick said. "This award is the first step of demonstrating how I can invest in students for my tenure in student affairs."

It was Guthrie who stepped forward to encourage Musick to enter the research award competition.

"When she informed me that she had won the award, I was thrilled indeed," Guthrie said. "In fact, I quickly got the word out to our faculty about it, because these are the kinds of things that all of us share in, and for which we are proud."

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Last Updated January 08, 2018