April Yee: What Drives My Research


Penn Sociology Ph.D candidate April Yee talks about the motivation behind her research:

My research interests are motivated by my professional experiences as an educator. Before coming to Penn for my PhD, I worked with students from disadvantaged backgrounds in a range of school settings- public elementary schools, non-profit educational organizations, a community college, and private universities- and saw firsthand how much social class mattered in the daily lives of students.

As a college administrator, I was especially struck by the challenges first-generation and low-income students faced in their attempts to achieve the “American Dream” of social mobility through higher education. These were students that had supposedly “made it”- they had successfully graduated from high school, applied and gotten into college- and yet they were struggling to get through college and earn their degrees.

I was involved with various programs that aimed to support these students, but beyond providing tutoring and financial aid, my colleagues and I didn’t really know how else to help. Very little existed in the research literature to understand the qualitative experiences of these students. There were (and continues to be) a lot of quantitative studies that described social class disparities in student enrollment, achievement, and graduation rates (which as administrators we witnessed in real time every day), but few explanations for these differences. And without really knowing what was causing these differences, we couldn’t do much to address them or improve the academic experiences and outcomes of our students.

So in my dissertation research I set out to reveal some of the factors that contribute to social class differences in higher education. I particularly wanted to know how institutions shape these differences, so that administrators and policymakers could use this knowledge to create interventions that better address these gaps. I also wanted to understand how social class mattered, because I found that existing research about socially disadvantaged students often looked at race, or race with some discussion of class, but rarely examined class as the focus of analysis.

Lastly, I pursued this line of research because I wanted to produce knowledge for college students themselves, who are at critical points of transition between childhood and adulthood and potential social statuses. I know that this time can be filled with immense stress and pressure for young adults, and the support they receive (or don’t receive) along the way can make a big difference in their life chances. It is my hope that my research will help college students better understand their educational experiences within a social context. Many of my former students and the students in my study internalized the individualistic “bootstrap” mentality of the American Dream ideology and solely blamed themselves for their struggles. I hope that my research can help them see their personal challenges as part of a system of larger structural barriers in American society. I want to offer them an explanation of how the system works, so that they can succeed in college, and to let them know that they are not alone.

For more about April and her research, visit her
Sociology page or her personal website.