Student Spotlight: Ed Psych Doctoral Candidate Returns to UVA after a Career in Law to Study Race and Diversity


By: Leslie M. Booren

Kimalee Dickerson, an Education Psychology-Applied Developmental Science Ph.D. candidate, talks about her research with institutions on diversity and inclusion.

Kimalee Dickerson

4th year doctoral candidate in the Educational Psychology-Applied Developmental Science program at the Curry School of Education and Human Development, a researcher at Youth-Nex and a VEST pre-doctoral fellow.

Hometown: Charlottesville, VA

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Dickerson Kimalee 412.jpgQuestion: How did you end up at the Curry School of Education?

Dickerson: I grew up in Charlottesville and got my bachelor’s degree in psychology and sociology from UVA before going to law school at UNC-Chapel Hill. I practiced law in different settings for several years before deciding to move back to Charlottesville to pursue my Ph.D. The Curry School had faculty researching specific topics I wanted to study, including race, ethnicity and diversity. I am also interested in using research to guide policy and practice, so an applied program like Education Psychology-Applied Developmental Science was a perfect fit!

Question: What research are you currently working on?

Dickerson: I am currently working on my dissertation, which examines the climate for racial diversity at a historically white university. A lot of the existing research on diversity climate focuses on people’s experiences, beliefs and interactions, but there is less research investigating institutional factors – like a school’s racial history or its organizational policies and practices – that also impact climate. I am examining the relationships between the historical legacy of racial segregation, current policies and practices, and how faculty, staff and students experience and perceive the school. My goal is to help institutions and organizations better understand their current climate and what they can do to create a more positive climate for diversity.

Question: How will this diversity work impact others?

Dickerson: There’s a lot of research connecting diversity climate to important outcomes like sense of belonging and student and faculty retention. During the affirmative action era, many schools focused on increasing the number of underrepresented students and faculty often without addressing other aspects of climate. Recently, however, more colleges and universities have taken additional steps, for example by studying and acknowledging their racist histories, requiring diversity courses or hiring dedicated diversity staff. My dissertation focuses on the institution’s role in creating racial climate and shaping what people experience. This work can help improve the racial climate at the particular schools I am studying and will also contribute to the broader understanding of the relationship between institutional factors and campus racial climate.

Question: What’s in your future now that you are combining your law degree with research?

Dickerson:  I entered this program with a desire to combine my legal background with applied educational research, and I still plan to work at the intersection of those two fields. The interdisciplinary nature of this program and my ability to explore a range of courses, service and research has helped me develop and refine my research and career interests. In the future, I plan to continue to work with educational institutions and other organizations on applied diversity, equity and inclusion work that connects research, policy and law.