Student walking through Ball State's quad
The Pathways program provides students from marginalized backgrounds the relationships and skills they need to pursue graduate education and beyond. (Photo by Rebecca Slezak, ’21)

Kiara Johnson spent a year in educational purgatory.

She came to Ball State in 2019, having already earned a bachelor of arts in English from Benedict College, a historically Black college in Columbia, South Carolina, and a master of arts in teaching from the University of Indianapolis.

But her application to the doctoral program in educational psychology at Ball State didn’t make it clear she was ready to thrive at that level. Faculty in the program encouraged her to apply to the master’s in educational psychology program to gain the skills and background knowledge needed for doctoral level study.

Kiara Johnson
Kiara Johnson (above, on a Zoom call with her mentor, Dr. Jerrell Cassady), says the support she’s received through Pathways has given her greater confidence.

Not one to give up on a dream, Johnson agreed. But she never felt more vulnerable.

With limited exposure to research, Johnson’s mind sometimes raced with anxiety that year. Would she fit in? How would she navigate the unwritten expectations of academia? If she made a mistake, would she just be confirming a stereotype?

“The entire time I kept wondering, am I good enough?” she said.

She was.

The doctoral program admitted her in 2020 thanks to a strong application with fresh research on test anxiety.

Johnson credits much of her success — including an increased sense of confidence and a better understanding of scholarship — to Ball State’s Pathways Mentoring program.

The Pathways program is an inclusive excellence initiative within the Graduate School designed to support students from marginalized backgrounds who want to pursue advanced degrees.

A broad spectrum

The spectrum of students Pathways serves is broad and includes students of color, veterans, students with disabilities, students with dependents, low-income students, and students in the LGBTQIA2S+ communities.

The mentoring program is part of the broader Pathways Project, which also includes mentoring workshops for faculty and staff and an Action Research Collective that expands research professional development opportunities for underrepresented and marginalized graduate students.

The Pathways Mentoring program currently serves about 50 students. Some mentors are helping undergraduate students prepare for graduate school; others are aiding graduate students as they prepare for doctoral programs.

Dr. Robin Phelps-Ward, assistant professor of higher education, helps coordinate the Pathways Mentoring program in collaboration with two graduate assistants.

Eight years ago, Phelps-Ward helped initiate the program alongside Dr. Charles Payne and Dr. Charlene Alexander, former directors of the Office of Institutional Diversity (now the Office of Inclusive Excellence). The ultimate goal was to build a network of mentors to help increase the numbers of faculty of color at the institution.

After graduating from Ball State in 2015 with an Ed.D. in adult, higher, and community education, Phelps-Ward joined Clemson University as an assistant professor of higher education and student affairs. She returned to Ball State in 2019 to lead the program once again, this time as the Graduate School’s Faculty Fellow for Inclusive Excellence.

Based on assessment and feedback from mentors and mentees in the program, Phelps-Ward renamed the program, now called Pathways, sans the PhD, to be more inclusive.

“There are folks who are interested in J.D.s or Ed.D.s or M.D.s. The list goes on,” she said. “We want to support those students, too.”

Lasting bonds

English professor Dr. Emily Rutter became a mentor in Fall 2016. She is now mentoring her third student. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the work involves Zoom meetings, text messaging, and emails. In prior years it included talks over coffee and in her office.

“One of the important things about Pathways is that is a lasting bond,” Rutter said. “I can continue to mentor or be in their lives long after graduation. That’s something that doesn’t always happen.”

First-generation student Cheyanne Wims is a junior studying social work with a minor in African-American studies. Her dream is to earn a Ph.D. and become a professor — maybe even at Ball State. She’s been involved in Pathways since her sophomore year. Her mentor is Dr. Ashley Hutchinson , PhD ’13, assistant professor of counseling psychology.

The pair email each other regularly and have bi-weekly meetings, via Zoom.

In one Zoom conference in October, Wims and Hutchinson talked about being assertive.

“I’m a Black woman and being assertive can be difficult sometimes,” Wims said. “But I’ve been practicing the tips we talked about and trying to be more expressive. I know it’s important so I can build up leadership experience.”

Mentoring plus more

Phelps-Ward warns that programs such as Pathways should not be seen as a cure-all.

Students should have more than one mentor, and it is better if they come through both formal and informal channels, she said. Additionally, institutions must address the structural issues that serve as barriers to success for students from marginalized backgrounds.

“We need mentoring plus more. This is everyone’s job. We have to work together to make sure we aren’t just paying lip service to access and equity.”

I feel like I’m in the middle of a fairy tale. It’s not an easy one. It’s hard. But it’s my dream come true.

—Kiara Johnson
Jerrell Cassady
Psychology Professor Jerrell Cassady is a Pathways mentor to Kiara Johnson. The Pathways Project includes mentoring workshops for faculty and professional development opportunities for students.

Kiara Johnson and her mentor, Dr. Jerrell Cassady, agree that Pathways is about much more than providing encouragement. The program helps coach students through research projects and develop applicable skills, too. It’s about making them as competitive as possible in the marketplace.

Growing up in poverty spurred in her a relentless drive to succeed, Kiara said. Pathways helped her apply that ambition to her education. She hopes to eventually build a school or develop a program that gives the same support she has received at Ball State, but for students at younger ages.

“She’ll be very valuable when she leaves Ball State,” said Cassady, a professor of psychology.

Even in this uncertain pandemic year, Kiara said she finally feels centered with a sense of calm that was missing in her previous educational experiences.

I feel like I’m in the middle of a fairy tale,” she said. “It’s not an easy one. It’s hard. But it’s my dream come true.”