All doctoral students at Illinois State share a trait. They are striving to grow and make a bigger difference in the world. But when those individuals receive high levels of support, the impact can be exponential.

Uplifting the work of diverse doctoral students is the focus of the Jackson Scholar Network, a long-established initiative developed by the University Council for Educational Administration (UCEA).

“Within higher education, the Jackson Scholars Network provides a system of support for BIPOC (Black, indigenous, and people of color) doctoral students. More specifically, it provides critical mentoring of folks who are entering the academy,” said Dr. Linsay DeMartino, assistant professor in the Department of Educational Administration and Foundations (EAF).

“Because it’s important to put in print that there’s an overwhelming amount of white faculty members across the United States.”

The numbers don’t lie. Per the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), 75 percent of tenured and non-tenured instructors are white. In EAF, 60 percent of full-time faculty are white.

She adds that universities, particularly predominately white institutions (PWI), have a moral responsibility to invest in resources that put underrepresented doctoral students in a position to pursue their academic and professional paths.

“…creating quality experiences for all students, especially those who have been marginalized, has to be a priority. When that baseline agreement is met, it demonstrates that an institution is willing to be changed.”

Jamillah Gilbert

Illinois State was one of the founding members of UCEA, and EAF Department Chair Dr. Lenford Sutton was a Jackson Scholar while working on his own doctoral degree.

“The value of the Jackson Scholar Network is just as important for the academy, today, and the progression of the outstanding EAF students who are going through the experience is exciting,” Sutton said. 

Three Redbirds (all EAF students) became Jackson Scholars in 2020, and two more were accepted into the network in late 2021. All scholars must first be nominated by a faculty member.

One of the newest members, Jamillah Gilbert, said she was humbled she was selected by EAF Professor Dr. Dianne Renn.

Gilbert is the assistant director of curriculum services in University College at Illinois State, and a leadership, equity, and inquiry Ph.D. student in EAF.

She said past scholars from EAF have touted multiple aspects of the Jackson Scholars Network, and particularly its unique mentorship program.

“I’m really looking forward to working with Jackson Scholar faculty mentors who are critically-minded and passionate about providing spaces in higher education institutions where the voices, contributions, and lived experiences of all scholars will be valued—particularly those of BIPOC scholars,” she said.

The worldwide reach of the faculty who participate in the Jackson Scholar Network offers a supplement to the faculty and student relationships offered within EAF, which offers one of the most diverse student and faculty populations at Illinois State.

“The EAF Department has done a phenomenal job of helping to encourage and create communities amongst the students, and we call these ‘third spaces,’” she said. “And I don’t plan to waste the opportunity of learning and contributing to both of these groups.”

Gilbert’s own work and research provides diverse undergraduate students with productive spaces to share their college experiences. For her, digesting and improving those experiences is the work of effective leadership, and she said talking with others who have blazed similar trails will be invaluable.

“Institutions need to decide, ‘How committed are we to actually doing what we say we believe?’”

For Gilbert, this means living up to the fine-tuned objectives and mission statements most universities chisel.

“I am focused on identifying if these two things align, and the best way to do that is to be asking the tough questions, and to ask those questions when speaking with those who are often overlooked,” Gilbert said.

She said to create change, competing forces are inevitable. The ideas for enhancing college campuses are endless, but resources are not.

“But creating quality experiences for all students, especially those who have been marginalized, has to be a priority,” she said. “When that baseline agreement is met, it demonstrates that an institution is willing to be changed.”

Gilbert said she approached EAF’s doctoral program the same way. She’s eager to let her education transform her own strategic research and leadership capabilities. The Jackson Scholar experience promises to offer a new dynamic opportunity for her future in higher education administration.

DeMartino said that EAF is dedicated to growing its Jackson Scholars Circle at Illinois State with quality students such as Gilbert and Kwame Patterson, who was also selected in 2022.

“My colleagues and I in EAF are focused on educating diverse groups of students for leadership in P-20 education,” DeMartino said. “It’s our mission, and we’re humbled to be able to partner with students and colleagues in the Jackson Scholars Network.”