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Claire DePalma’s study of antiracism receives SACSA Dissertation of the Year Award

Claire DePalma has been named the 2023 recipient of the Dissertation of the Year Award from the Southern Association for College Student Affairs (SACSA) for her dissertation, “Antiracist Praxis by White Women in Student Affairs.” As the title suggests, DePalma’s research explores how white women who engage in antiracist practices in their student affairs work understand and enact those practices.

The award was presented during the SACSA 2023 Conference in Atlanta.

DePalma received her doctoral degree in education in student affairs leadership from the University of Georgia in May. She now serves Emory University students as special advisor to James Raper, Campus Life’s associate vice president for health, well-being, access and prevention. Prior to joining Campus Life, DePalma was assistant director of student affairs and wellness with the university’s Laney Graduate School.

With nearly a decade of experience in student affairs, DePalma’s journey to that career destination has been anything but direct, by her own admission.

“Bitten by the theater bug” in high school, DePalma majored in theater in college and went on to earn a master of fine arts in creative writing before teaching theater and English in a Pittsburgh high school. While teaching, DePalma realized she loved working in an educational environment, facilitating discussions about big ideas and how they change us for the better and supporting groups of students working toward common goals.

“At some point, I realized my love of working with groups toward the goal of effecting change, coupled with my lifelong love of learning, was pointing toward a career in higher education,” says DePalma. “But I had no student affairs experience, and I found the field hard to break into.”

Eventually, her opportunity came through the student life office in Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business. While at Stanford, she earned a master’s degree in counseling to gain additional skills in supporting students. After moving to Atlanta, she took a job in career planning and development at Kennesaw State University, and in 2021, she joined the Emory staff.

DePalma enrolled in doctoral studies at the University of Georgia in May 2020, just before the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent national conversations. In a class that fall, she and a classmate were assigned to develop a proposal for a conference presentation. They chose to focus on antiracist hiring and supervision practices in student affairs. Their interactive presentations engaged participants and garnered awards at several conferences. Those conference experiences led DePalma to focus on antiracism for her dissertation work.

“I believe antiracist practices are necessary to create a more liberatory higher education, one that empowers community members of all identities to feel they belong,” DePalma adds. “My mission as a student affairs professional is to create conditions in which all students can thrive.”

DePalma’s research uncovered new recommendations particularly salient for student affairs practitioners who are white. She emphasizes that her study corroborates the advice of scholars and activists, especially Black women and other women of color, who have offered guidance for racial justice actions and allyship for decades.

In addition to receiving the award at the SACSA Conference, DePalma shared her research in a conference presentation.

“I am deeply grateful and humbled that SACSA, an organization so essential to today’s student affairs profession, has chosen me to receive the prestigious Dissertation of the Year Award,” she says. “I love this field and know I have found my calling, so this award is a huge honor.”

As the daughter of a teacher-turned-social-worker and a psychologist, perhaps DePalma was always destined for a career serving others.

“It took a village of family, friends, teachers, mentors and colleagues to shape who I am today as a person and a professional,” DePalma says. “I intend to continue to honor their contributions to my journey in my service to students.”

“I hope my dissertation will help elevate awareness of the antiracism work that can and should be done on campuses to benefit all students. It’s work we all must do,” she adds. “As strongly as I believe anything, I believe every student deserves to experience a sense of belonging.”

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