As a professor in the School of Kinesiology and Recreation (KNR), Dr. Emily Jones is finding new ways to get to know the student body through her research. She focuses on the concept of belonging when it comes to recruitment and retention of students in the Physical Education Teacher Education (PETE) major.

“We want to be proactive and intentional about understanding our student body and who we are recruiting to become future teachers,” said Jones, who arrived at Illinois State in the fall of 2017. She was awarded a University Research Grant from the College of Applied Science and Technology (CAST) in 2018 to study what motivates PETE students to choose physical education at ISU.

The grant-funded project’s goal was to understand how students walked through the process of considering Illinois State, as well as the factors that influenced their decision-making to apply and enroll. “We could not continue to use passive recruitment tactics. We knew that we needed to be strategic to recruit and retain students into our specific programs,” Jones said.

The research team embarked on a national survey of PETE students. Using a social capital framework, the survey asked the students what elements they value and how they came to be currently enrolled. For example, the team wanted to know if the students had families that valued education and/or health or if the student was motivated to find a career that would elevate them socially or financially.

Though the research provided input on strategic marketing and promotional materials, the findings also addressed the issues and concerns of prospective students in a way that can inform classroom approaches. “We, as faculty members in higher education, need to be welcoming. We want students to feel and know that they fully belong, and we want them to feel comfortable asking for support,” Jones said. 

The research findings also allowed the department to see areas for improvement, including attracting a more diverse student population. “We weren’t losing our diverse students. We weren’t attracting them to begin with,” Jones explained.

What started with the CAST University Research Grant project has now grown to include a research team with faculty members from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Northeastern University, Springfield College, and East Tennessee University working alongside Jones.

“Collectively, we are all focused on diversifying the pipeline of teacher educators,” she said. “We need to think about how we are preparing these future teachers to teach all students, including being prepared to talk about diversity, inclusion, and social justice issues in the classroom,” said Jones.

While the formal research project is ongoing, Jones shared that there are likely inherent or social barriers to pursuing a career in PETE or teacher education in general. “Coming at it from a strengths-based perspective, we want to know what sort of support they experienced, and—perhaps most importantly—how do they see themselves as a future educator and valuable part of students’ lives?” Jones said.

She hopes the research informs significant change. “We will need to consider the kind of policies we have in place that are prohibitive instead of empowering,” she said. “When I do the work, I always ask myself, am I better? I can only be better tomorrow based on what I have learned today.”

Interested in learning more about Jones’s research or the Physical Education Teacher Education major? Visit