Published: July 7, 2015

Rather than just absorbing research by others, a group of CU-Boulder undergraduates embarked on their own research-based inquiry into what motivates students of color to fully participate in campus activities – or to hold back. 

The student-driven research paper, entitled Students of Color Are Motivated Agents of Change: Why Aren’t We Joining Your Programs?, pinpoints scenarios and climate issues on campus related to inclusion and access for underrepresented students and offers suggestions for making the campus more inclusive.

The research project is the first carried out by students through CU Engage, a new center for community-based learning and research housed in the CU School of Education. The project was funded in part by the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP).

“For me, it’s really important that CU Engage is contributing to efforts to improve equity and access and inclusion on the CU-Boulder campus,” said Ben Kirshner, faculty director of CU Engage.

“The fact that undergraduate students who experience these issues directly defined the line of inquiry and conducted the research makes it that much more powerful as a tool for organizational change and student engagement.”

The research also connects to CU-Boulder’s Flagship 2013 strategic plan, which calls for, among other things, improving student retention and success and implementing new strategies to improve diversity and foster a supportive and inclusive climate for all.

Key findings

A key finding in the report is that CU-Boulder students of color are motivated to engage in campus organizations to meet people, access resources, give back to their communities and gain a sense of self-empowerment.

“The biggest thing is that students of color are often portrayed as not wanting to be engaged on campus,” said researcher Melissa Arreola Peña,, 22, a recent graduate and first generation Mexican-American.

“That is one thing I really want to get across to professors and other staff: We really want to be involved. We just don’t know how or sometimes we’re scared.”

The research helped define what students of color deem ‘safe spaces,’ or places and people that provide resources, such as academic support and materials, to underrepresented students. They are places where students can engage in conversations in which their voices are heard and their ideas respected.  

Conversely, extracurricular or service learning spaces that are described as ‘non-safe’ lack cultural diversity, which can make it hard for a student of color to feel comfortable. Additionally, ‘non-safe’ spaces on campus fail to account for the fact that the campus is predominantly white and may lack cultural responsiveness or an intention to support students of color.

The student researchers used an approach called participatory action research, a research philosophy in which the people who are impacted by an issue collaborate to do the research themselves. Participatory action research allows research teams to work in a more democratic way in which all members have a say in how the project is conducted.

The research team consisted of Kirshner, undergraduate students Melissa Arreola Peña, Katie Raitz, Yohannese Gebremedhin and Gyslaine Kabisa Kadima, and one graduate student – Becca Kaplan - representing a range of racial, cultural, and religious affiliations. Several of the research team members are first in their families to attend college.

Arreola Peña, recently graduated with a degree in ethnic studies, with minors in political science and women and gender studies, and already landed a job as a parent organizer for the non-profit group Padres & Jóvenes Unidos in Denver.

“I always wanted to do something that would improve my campus,” Arreola Peña, said of the research project.

“I always wanted to create a change. I just didn’t know how that change would look or when it would take place. When I was approached by Ben, I thought, ‘This is it.’”

Research recommendations

The researchers also compiled recommendations for the CU campus. One is to provide more financial resources to support underrepresented students, many of whom have to work while going to school. This could include work-study positions, course credit or UROP grants to support collaborative research.

The undergraduate researchers also recommended increased communication and collaboration between campus groups that have common goals or work with similar groups of students. And finally, the report encourages faculty, staff and CU leaders to learn more about individual student experiences, backgrounds and perspectives, to leverage diverse student strengths in academic and extracurricular settings and to avoid singling out or overlooking them because of their minority status.