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Phillandra Smith Finds and Fosters Community at Syracuse University
Phillandra Smith hadn’t considered a Ph.D. until a professor at Barry University asked what she would do after finishing a master’s degree. Smith, who is from the Bahamas, had planned to return to the classroom. “This professor was honestly really tough, but she said, ‘I really think you should go on and do a Ph.D.,” Smith says. “At that point I knew no one who had a Ph.D. outside of my professors, so that idea was so far-fetched I hadn’t even imagined it.” Her professor encouraged her to apply to Syracuse University.
Smith had read several of Professor Beth Ferri’s research papers while in her master’s program and saw a good fit with her own research interests. Ferri, professor of inclusive education and disability studies and associate dean for research in the School of Education, eventually became her Ph.D. advisor.
When asked about professors who have been instrumental to her success, Smith says, “Oh gosh, this question will get me in trouble. In so many ways my journey has been one big group project. So many people have poured into me.”
“Beth Ferri and Marcelle Haddix pushed opportunities my way, advocated for me and encouraged me to apply for or take part in things I didn’t think I was qualified for as an international student,” Smith says. “I am grateful that both of these women pushed me to imagine new possibilities and not count myself out based on my immigration status. I call Beth Myers my cheerleader. From the beginning she has been someone I could be open and honest about how I was feeling and that was extremely helpful.”
Academically, Smith found Eunjung Kim, associate professor in women’s and gender studies and cultural foundations of education and disability studies, to be a supportive mentor, “She challenged me in my writing and to see things differently. She led me through submitting my first piece to be published, which I thought was impossible, but she assisted me and let me know that you can be human in the academic process,” she says. Smith went on to create an impressive pipeline of publications as she completed a full five-course sequence in research methods.
Gretchen Lopez, director of the Intergroup Dialogue Program and associate professor in women’s and gender studies and cultural foundations of education and disability studies, also helped Smith find her way as a scholar. “She has a way of being present with her students that makes you feel seen when she is talking to you. She gives constructive feedback. I know she always has 10 million things to do, but I never felt like I was less of a priority whenever we spoke. I aspire to emulate this as a professor,” Smith says.
Smith defends her dissertation in July and will begin a tenure-track position at the University of Pittsburgh. Ferri believes that Smith will be a huge asset to Pitt’s program, “In my 20-plus years of working with doctoral students, Phillandra stands out in terms of her professionalism, her gifts as an instructor and her leadership in the field and university context. Phillandra is a gifted teacher who is steadfastly committed to student’s success—encouraging them but also respecting them enough to hold them to high standards. Her teaching evaluations are stellar!”
Smith also received several internal competitive research grants/awards—including a departmental award (Marsha Smith Lewis Memorial Dissertation Scholarship), a School of Education award (Joan Burstyn Endowed Research in Education Award) and two Universitywide awards—the Research and Creative Grant Award and an Outstanding TA Award. “Any one of these awards would be impressive, but to have received awards at every level is quite impressive,” says Ferri.
As a Black student at Syracuse University, Smith says she didn’t immediately find her community. “I was the only Black woman in my program and I wasn’t ready for that isolation. I met Tonya Wilson at a School of Education reception and she became my person in Syracuse,” she says. “It was important for me to stretch out of my program and department to make those connections, which have been especially helpful during the pandemic.” Her close group of fellow graduate students has moved into an online space that they call “the office”—keeping each other accountable as they work toward their individual goals.
Her experience led her to help create the Graduate School’s BIPOC Alliance for Excellence, where she put her research skills to work holding focus groups to explore what support would be useful for BIPOC graduate students. “Dean (Peter) Vanable asked my opinion about what the Graduate School could do to support BIPOC students, so I went out and asked,” she says. “Out of those focus groups, we identified a great team of people working on the initiative.” Launched in the fall semester of 2021, the BIPOC Alliance has held informal mixers, social events and panel discussions on mentorship, thriving and overall wellness as a BIPOC graduate student. Smith hopes the BIPOC Alliance will help other graduate students “find their people” early in their Syracuse University experience. “I think I am leaving the organization in great hands because we had so many people on board with making it successful. Chelsea Bouldin will be taking over from me, and I am excited to see how GSBA expands under her leadership,” she says.
Vanable, dean of the Graduate School, agrees, “What Phillandra and the other leaders identified is that there wasn’t a built-in way for BIPOC students to connect with peers in other departments, programs and schools. The collaborative way the alliance operates means that there’s now a core group of student leaders who brought ideas to the table and will continue to engage with others to create programming that addresses the needs of BIPOC students,” he says.
Smith is looking forward to taking up her teaching and research at the University of Pittsburgh. “I’m going to learn the community and find collaborators. My primary interest is identifying evidence-based practices in antiracist teaching and inclusive education,” she says. “It’s exciting to have people be excited about the work that you are doing. I was excited about my research, but I didn’t know how other people would respond to it. The folks at University of Pittsburgh are excited. I’m joining a community that really engaged with these topics during my interview process and it’s been very energizing.”