Interview by Angela Xie, SSW ’24
As a Latino first-generation college graduate, Michael A. Medina is interested in the systems and contexts that support student success. An assistant professor of applied human development at BU Wheelock College of Education & Human Development, he explores the educational experiences and challenges of diverse student populations, including topics such as positive youth development, forming school-community partnerships, and developing anti-racist pedagogy.
Medina is a recipient of National Science Foundation (NSF) and Ford Foundation Fellowships, and was recently awarded an NSF Rapid Grant to explore students’ ethnic identity development during the COVID-19 pandemic. Prior to joining BU Wheelock, he was a postdoctoral scholar in the Peer Relations Lab at the Department of Human Ecology at the University of California, Davis.
Q: What is your research focus?
Medina: My area of research is positive social identity development over time, including ethnic and racial identity development, exposure to diversity and discrimination, and experiences of socialization. I look at how young people in the US develop a positive or negative understanding of their background or the background of others, and how that shapes the way they go through school, how they navigate relationships and feel about themselves, and ultimately, the role they think they should play in our society.
For example, some young people who experience racialized discrimination might come to further embrace the part of their identity that has been discriminated against, as a kind of a protective measure. My research interacts with those young people to determine what are the factors that promote a positive outlook about their social identity and how schools, communities, and families can promote that.
Q: What kinds of policy or advocacy work are you involved in?
Medina: I am a staunch proponent of educational policy keeping up with the changing population in the country. There are so many policies designed to try to support students that aren’t all drawing from the most relevant educational data or keeping up with the changing demographics of student populations. My research aims to give directly back to schools and educational administrations findings that are relevant to how they can better serve their students, which in turn they may use to update their practices to better accommodate student needs.
As a field, education is so massive and so nuanced that the practices we pursue can easily become outdated. Policy needs to keep up with research, research needs to be involved actively in schooling, schools must listen to their students, and students must ultimately benefit from policy. It’s a necessary cycle.
Q: What motivates the research you do?
Medina: They say most research is me-search, and that’s definitely true with me. I grew up in a very poor and underserved community in New Jersey. My schools were lacking a lot of essentials. I struggled, and many of my friends struggled. My family had trouble getting involved, and I think the teachers weren’t well-equipped—through no fault of their own—to serve us. I’m a first-generation college grad and that wasn’t for lack of trying on the part of my family.
My hope is that my work through research, teaching, service, or community involvement will make education more accessible to students who are under-resourced, underserved, or undermotivated. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t have people actively pushing me toward the finish line as I was running in the opposite direction. My ultimate hope is—when it comes to student admissions, retention, and engagement across diverse and historically marginalized populations—to be that hand reaching out and pulling them toward education, in the same way that I was pulled.
Q: How has the educational landscape changed over the course of your career?
Medina: Right now, there is such a push toward multiculturalism, which is beneficial for those of us who want to support diverse student groups. It wasn’t that long ago that segregation in schools was the norm, and we’re still recovering from that. Schools are still incredibly segregated, both on the student side and the instructor side. But what I’ve seen is that we’re identifying our gaps in understanding around multiculturalism, around diversity, and we’re taking steps to correct that.
Research like mine receives national funding, and universities are successfully pushing out diversity, equity, and inclusion programs, and pouring millions of dollars into those initiatives. That acknowledgement goes a long way to ensuring student interest in these topics, securing funding, and encouraging schools to hire experts in these areas. Education is a massive industry that moves incredibly slowly, so these incremental steps are necessary for that creep of change towards progress.
Q: What are some challenges you’ve encountered during your research or education?
Medina: When it comes to topics like race, ethnicity, and diversity, people define them in very different ways. It’s been difficult to come up with comprehensive theories that keep up with the nation’s changing views on these topics. I’m interested in capturing the experiences of multiracial youth who are consistently left out of psychological research and conversations because they are so unique in terms of their ethnic-racial background. I’ve had grant funding agencies say they are not a population of interest, despite the fact that they’re one of the fastest growing populations in the country. You can get challenges at every level, but this is a credible topic for understanding how diverse young people are going to succeed in a racialized society.
Q: What are some of your next steps?
Medina: I’d like to continue teaching about topics related to positive educational experiences and productive change in the educational system. I’d like to continue services that target recruitment and retention of students from marginalized backgrounds. In my research, I’d like to learn more about the most underserved and ignored student populations, such as multiracial youth, so that we might work toward educational and social policies that serve them before we find ourselves with a diverse and complex student population that we do not at all understand.