Putting Identity into Focus

Putting Identity into Focus

Ashley Carpenter ’19PhD is going beyond Critical Race Theory to understand how Black youth are navigating multiple pandemics simultaneously.

Chicago suburb native Ashley Carpenter is an expert when it comes to college transitions.

As a higher education scholar, she engages directly with the multifaceted cultural landscapes that impact students of Color and their academic journeys. Her work is enmeshed in the “here and now” of daily life as it is experienced by Black youth, especially those who grew up in low-income urban environments. 

Like many academics, Ashley’s intellectual pursuits stem from deeply held personal values. At UMass Amherst and MIT, she worked as diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) administrator, guiding at-risk students through the process of acclimating to college and tapping into the various support networks available to first generation learners.

“I was surrounded by love and compassion,” she says of her time at UMass, especially the two years she worked with the Upward Bound program for first-gen students from Springfield. “It’s not only important to get students to college, but to provide genuine, tangible resources while they’re there.”

Now, as an assistant professor at Appalachian State University in North Carolina, Ashley is carrying out the work of the new academic vanguard, blending research, teaching, and advocacy to not only expose educational inequities, but to suggest ways that new futures can be created.

“I’m looking at what it means to be Black identified in 2021,” she said. At ASU, Ashley is in the final stages of wrapping up a nationwide interdisciplinary study of Black identity, COVID-19, and police brutality on college campuses. The study is a true partnership, and, in a sense, a continuation of Ashley’s time in the College of Education. Her co-investigator is Chrystal George Mwangi, a former UMass Amherst education professor and Ashley’s dissertation chair.

“We used a double consciousness lens, looking at how Black students envision themselves, and  how their Blackness is viewed," Ashley said. 

"We’re utilizing a Black Critical Theory framework...because Critical Race Theory cannot fully encompass the counterstories of Black experiences, nor does it have the appropriate language to capture how antiblackness constructs law, policy, and everyday life of Black experiences.”

The study is particularly timely, as it considers questions of Black students’ physical and mental health in an era of remote learning, virtual conversation, and digitally filtered social interactions.

Self-awareness is key to this type of research based in social justice. Appalachian State has afforded Ashley the opportunity to not only think about questions of identity in her work, but to also reflect on—and appreciate—her own positionality and relationship to her students. ASU represents a major departure from the urban, youth-focused work she has done in the past, primarily because she interacts with an entirely different demographic now.

“I teach master’s and doctoral students, who work in various school systems,” she said. “And, they’re rural. Some of the experiences they have, and that I have, are starkly different.

"One of the best things I can say is that I really enjoy learning from them,” she added. “One of the most rewarding things is how conversational, dialogue focused, and learning centered my classrooms have become, just as spaces where knowledge is continued, back and forth.”

The College of Education plays a pivotal role in grounding her experience, Ashley said. Memories of early morning writing sessions in Montague House—and daily conversations with her dissertation committee members (“they’re the mothers of my academic village,” she says)—all contributed to the humanizing, identity-focused work she has grown to love. 

“I would not be the scholar I am without the immaculate support I had at UMass,” she said. “I had a phenomenal experience.”

This story was published in the fall 2021 college newsletter. Read more stories about students, alumni, faculty, staff, and donors.