Grad Student Takes Research to D.C. As Intern for New White House Initiative

Ph.D. student Lauren Mims spent this summer working in the U.S. Department of Education on the White House Initiative on Education Excellence for African Americans.

Lauren Mims has a saying that fuels all the work she does at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education: “It only takes one spark to start a fire. And the more sparks we create in the field of education for youth of color, the more passions we can ignite around educational excellence, particularly for African-American students.”

Mims, a self-proclaimed fire-starter and Ph.D. student in the educational psychology-applied developmental science program, is completing a summer internship at the U.S. Department of Education focused on the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans, a cross-agency effort created in 2012 by executive order of President Obama.

It’s been 60 years since the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling that integrated public schools, but African-American students are still facing struggles in the education system. Mims – alongside her faculty adviser, assistant professor Joanna Williams – is focused on improving educational equality and tries to understand how best to promote positive outcomes for youth of color.

Entering her second year in the doctoral program, Mims has centered some of her work on how black college students feel at predominantly white institutions.

“My research examines stories of black students to better understand how these lived experiences affect social, academic and psychological well-being,” Mims said. “The findings hope to deepen our understanding of the experiences of black youth as well as highlight areas we can enhance in order to improve the outcomes and experiences of black students, with a particular focus on youth in middle school and youth in college.”

Her research at the Curry School has closely aligned with and even overlaps with projects currently underway in the Obama administration. One project Mims worked on this summer is First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Reach Higher” campaign, challenging students to get into and stay enrolled in college.

“At the White House, I’m working on developing one-pagers, webinars and Twitter chats on persistent and prolonged exposure to stress, and promoting positive youth development in ways that are applicable to legislators, teachers and parents, but I’m using research that I know from, or am conducting in, my U.Va. program,” Mims said.

Mims is also helping to launch a companion film screening and discussion series that depicts positive and compelling stories of African-American students, families and communities. The series is designed to encourage active engagement, learning and development of African-American students from preschool through college.

Williams, Mims’ adviser, hopes that this internship will give Mims a good sense of where her specific research is located in the larger educational and policy landscapes.  

“Lauren is gaining a tremendously valuable experience by tackling really big topic areas, like successful college retention approaches for black students,” Williams said. “She is distilling them down to a few key findings or recommendations, and then communicating them out in a way that’s easily accessible to a broad audience of stakeholders like families, educators, policymakers, the media and so on.”

During the internship, Mims had an opportunity to attend a U.S. House of Representatives panel discussion on “Ending the School-to-Prison Pipeline and ESEA” on Capitol Hill to discuss “solutions, not suspensions” to improve outcomes. She participated in a roundtable meeting with a small group of community advocates from across the country seeking to dismantle the system that pushes vulnerable kids out of schools and into the justice system.

“I’m learning how to speak a new language, and it gives me a contemporary lens to how this work applies to different audiences,” Mims said. “It’s really neat to be at the cutting edge.”

Mims’ internship was in part related to her fellowship in the Curry School’s Virginia Educational Science Training program.

“What I love about being a VEST fellow is doing work that I’m passionate about,” she said. “And this research is making a difference in the lives of youth of color in schools every day.”

VEST fellows take part in practice-based internships in their training, but Mims has taken the initiative to gain some early policy and practice experience as a foundation for her research.

“This is an incredible opportunity for Lauren and is invaluable to the research she is doing,” Williams said. “She is making connections and networking with policymakers who have a vested interest in the positive development and educational success of black youth.

“Lauren will use what she learns during this internship as a source of inspiration for her doctoral studies and beyond.”

Mims earned her bachelors degree in English and psychology at U.Va. and worked with the Young Women Leaders Program, sponsored by the Curry School and the U.Va. Maxine Platzer Lynn Women’s Center. She received her master’s degree at Tufts University in child development before returning to U.Va. for her Ph.D.

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Audrey Breen

School of Education and Human Development