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Staff Snapshot: Pheather R. Harris, STEM diversity trailblazer

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Pheather Harris

“It takes one conversation to derail someone or to give them the inspiration they need to do amazing things,” says Pheather R. Harris. She speaks from personal experience. While her career has been filled with impactful collaborations and meaningful discussions with mentors, colleagues and students alike, two peoples’ words shaped the path of her life in a dramatic and lasting way.

The first conversation took place when Pheather was in high school. When she met with her guidance counselor for an advising session, and the counselor told her that she would never be accepted into college. As a young person from a low-income household whose parents hadn’t gone to college and who had no outside advice to counter hers, the sting of these words had a powerful impact. “I believed this person who had the important role of helping students determine their aspirations and the steps to achieve them,” Pheather says. “I had no other information to guide me. Her advice caused me to make decisions that were not the best for me.”

Years later, Pheather took a chance and enrolled in Santa Monica College (SMC). She was a single parent mother to a young son she’d had soon after high school and was trying her best to succeed. That’s when she had the second conversation, with her academic advisor, Benny Blaydes. “Benny told me, ‘I believe you can be successful here,’” Pheather recalls. “Maybe he said that to students all the time, but it was the first time someone had said it to me, and it changed the possibilities that I saw for myself. I thought ‘This person believes that I can be successful, and I don’t want to let him down.’ And as I continued throughout my academic journey, I began to surprise myself with what I was able to accomplish.”

A career in service to others

As Pheather’s studies and career progressed, her focus began to crystalize. “When I first started out in the work that I do, it was led by a feeling in my stomach, that I didn’t know how to describe. It was a feeling that was born out of exclusionary environments in education. As I came across more literature about how it feels to be excluded and undervalued, I was relieved to know that I was not alone because the authors’ words described what I felt. There are many factors at play when we talk about systemic inequity in our country. People are oftentimes told that their value, or lack thereof, is based upon the bodies they occupy. I decided that my goal would be to do everything I could to prevent other students from feeling what I had at such a young age.”

In the years that followed the conversation at SMC, Pheather continued her studies and began a two-decade career in academia. She transferred to the University of Southern California (USC), where she completed her bachelor’s degree in communication, graduating magna cum laude. She traveled to the East Coast, where she received a master’s degree in education from the prestigious Harvard Graduate School of Education, then a doctorate in education from the George Washington University (GWU).

While pursuing her studies, she held various roles in academia, from student advising, program management and leadership. And, throughout all this time, she actively volunteered in her local community, serving as a role model and voice of encouragement to students whose background and challenges resembled hers. USC recognized her with the Order of Troy for exemplary service and leadership. 

These diverse experiences as a student and mentor to students gave Pheather a unique vantage point into the role that higher-ed professionals can play in students’ success and their continuation of academic studies. “I wanted to focus on how faculty and advisors can ensure that students receive positive information, from a strengths-based perspective, about what they’re able to achieve,” she explains.

Award-winning vision 

At GWU, Pheather honed her focus on student success in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. “After a year or two in any major, students decide whether a program of study is right for them. However, in STEM programs, minoritized students leave at statistically significantly higher rates than students from other racial and ethnic backgrounds. The question many researchers ask is ‘What is happening in the environment that’s making students feel like they have to switch out?’” Pheather explains.

Based on her own experiences, she believed that part of the problem might be that these students weren’t getting the support and validation they needed to feel a sense of belonging and to understand their potential. Her doctoral dissertation focused on the relationship between faculty engagement and African-American student STEM persistence.

In 2018, Pheather returned to California, to her current role as director of the California Alliance for Minority Participation (CAMP) at UC Irvine. CAMP, which is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), works to increase the amount of STEM degree recipients from underrepresented communities at UC by providing resources for successfully navigating science and engineering programs. “My lived experience, having grown up in various areas of Los Angeles, academic training, and professional interests converged at UC Irvine,” she says. 

After the brutal 2020 murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis, Pheather knew that she wanted to find a way to transform the system, using her own knowledge and expertise. She found campus leadership to be equally invested in advancing diversity, equity, inclusion, and social justice at UC Irvine. In partnership with six STEM school deans and drawing upon her relationships with colleagues throughout the nation, she developed the concept of The Institute for Meaningful Engagement (TIME), a faculty professional development series that explores why underrepresented students leave STEM programs and how faculty, staff and peers can help to retain them. She applied for a grant from the NSF — her first application as a principal investigator — and was awarded nearly $3 million over a five-year period to fund the program.

The first two-year TIME cohort is currently underway with 12 tenured and untenured faculty members who were nominated by the STEM school deans. In their sessions, faculty review quantitative local and national STEM data, qualitative data on students’ lived experiences and relevant literature. At the end of the first-year cohort, participants will learn pragmatic recommendations to adopt in their classrooms. Second-year participants will implement what they’ve learned, then observe, measure and report on the results. Following the program, cohort participants will each lead workshops at their schools to pass along their knowledge to colleagues and students.

“This is an intensive experience to understand the context associated with this work, and how each of us; not just faculty, but all of us who work on campus, as well as our students, can advance inclusion. We all need to understand what we can do to shift the atmosphere,” Pheather says. “This is a mindset, a lifelong process. There is no checklist related to this work. It’s very much about cultivating a culture of intentionality, engaging openly with one another, and learning from each other’s lived experiences.”

This work is challenging, not only for participants but also for Pheather, a self-described introvert. “I have had to be bold and step out in front of these issues in order to have necessary conversations in meaningful, ways. I have to remind myself sometimes that my introversion is not as important as doing something about this cause, for which I care so deeply.”

She says, “I’m grateful for the team that I’m partnering with, including the leadership team that’s advancing this work. It takes a coalition, and everyone has been so supportive and helpful. I am also so very appreciative for the national partners who have come together and taken time to contribute to this project. The excitement and passion for the work are what fuels and motivates our entire team.”

Pheather is proud to say that today, her journey as a student, mentor and mother has come full circle. Her son has just received his bachelor’s degree from USC and will soon go on to graduate school. From day one, she’s been his biggest cheerleader. “It is so important that we understand the power of our words when it comes to what students are able to achieve. We help to guide the decisions that will shape the rest of their lives,” she says.

Meet Pheather

Name: Pheather R. Harris, Ed.D.

Title: Program Director

Department/Unit: California Alliance for Minority Participation (CAMP) and Principal Investigator, The Institute for Meaningful Engagement (TIME)

Location: UC Irvine

When did you start working for UC? January 2018

In five words or less, what do you do for UC? I advance diversity, equity, access, and inclusion

Why do you love working for UC?  Partnerships with my colleagues and my experiences with the students I serve.

What’s something people don’t know about you? My parents were both musicians.

Who’s your dream dinner guest (living or dead) and why? I’m a very spiritual person and I would love to have dinner with Jesus.

What’s the best career advice you’ve ever received? I met with a faculty member at Harvard when I was about to graduate and was trying to understand what my next steps would be. (This is a space that students often find themselves in; they say, “I’ve finished my studies and these other extracurricular activities. What’s next?”) My professor asked me, “Who is doing work that’s similar to what you aspire to do?” No one had ever asked me that. I’d always imagined my work as something I’d have to envision and build alone. When I researched, I came across Geoffrey Canada, who also has a master’s degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. His work at the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York really moved me. He was evaluating all the factors and systems that impacted students, from childhood to adulthood, and finding ways to address them. It was so inspiring. His vision and impact helped to inform my understanding of how I would ultimately decide to move forward. At the time, I didn’t see this as the most powerful advice, but it transformed my understanding of what I could do with my career.

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