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Scholars Speak

In her own words: Maria Cynthia (MC) Anderson

2023 ISPP Scholar MC Anderson stands by IBHE sign

As an ISPP Scholar, Maria Cynthia (MC) Anderson is appointed with the Illinois Board of Higher Education. Her work is significant as she explores the ways in which to expand quality access and equity in higher education in Illinois, especially to individuals who have historically been underrepresented or underserved. Through her work with her host agency and her extension mentor, MC is exploring ways in which individuals who may take non-traditional paths in their lives have access to and resources for achieving a degree. MC shared some thoughts with me about the ISP program, and her work so far.

Why did you apply for the Illini Science Policy Program?

I applied to be an Illini Science Policy Program 2023 scholar because of its mission to match post-graduates with host offices working at the intersection of public service and public policy. A friend of mine introduced me to the Illini Science Policy Program over coffee and breakfast. I was about to begin the last semester of my graduate studies in Education Policy, Organization and Leadership (EPOL) and was anxious about my next steps. As an alumna of EPOL, I was curious to learn more about her new appointment as an Illini Science Policy Program scholar. During our conversation I asked her several questions like: How did she find out about it? What did the work look like? Did she like it? How did it relate to the field we both studied? Over the course of the next few months, she and I kept in touch, giving me even more insight into what being an ISPP scholar entailed. Our conversations not only revealed a clearer picture of what made up the ISPP from an insider perspective, but also piqued my curiosity about careers in public service. My friend’s accounts of being an ISPP scholar, as well as her encouragement that I too could have such an experience, influenced my decision to apply.

Tell us a bit about what you hope to accomplish as a result of being a 2023 Scholar.

Being an ISPP Scholar with the Illinois Board of Higher Education College Readiness project offers me an invaluable experience working with policy experts committed to expanding quality access and equity to higher education in Illinois state. Three main goals I have to help keep me focused as a result of being a 2023 scholar are: 1. Increase my understanding of what constitutes a career at the intersection of public service and academia; 2. Expand my analytic research skills in the area of data analytics; and 3. Secure a full-time position where I can continue to develop as a public service academic.

Tell us a bit about what you are working on for your host agency.

I started working with the Illinois Board of Higher Education (IBHE) in July 2022 and immediately began working on a project about Higher Education in Prison (HEP) programs through the lens of IBHE primary goal of increasing equity in higher education to reach historically underrepresented students in the state of Illinois. Two other projects I will be working on as an ISPP scholar with IBHE include research on the Dual Credit Quality Act, Illinois (more about this in the next answer). In January I will be starting an online course in Tableau Software with other IBHE staff. The course is being funded by IBHE and was made available to any IBHE staff who want to increase their skills in data visualization.

Tell us a bit about what you are working with your Extension Mentor?

Margaret Larson is my Extension Mentor, County Director of Unit 1. Unit 1 includes Jo Davies, Stephenson, and Winnebago Counties, rural counties located in the upper Northwest corner of Illinois. This fall we have been developing a collaborative project together with my host office the Illinois Board of Higher Education focusing on “Identifying Barriers and Opening Pathways for Rural Communities to Access Early College.” I am currently pulling together a literature review on the topic of dual credit in the state of Illinois, with a special emphasis on students in rural counties.  As a research scholar, I think this is an important part of any good research process. The aim of our initial investigation serves in identifying what questions are worth asking so we can create a project that has a positive impact for Unit 1 students. Our next step includes connecting with a handful of stakeholders throughout Unit 1 counties engaged with dual credit issues in the area. Both the formal literature review as well as the information we gather from our site visits will inform a questionnaire we plan to send out to Unit 1 Dual Credit instructors. Finally, we will analyze the data results through our understanding of Illinois’s Dual Credit Quality Act, revised in June 2022. By the end of my ISPP scholar 2023 year, I would like to have created a webinar about College Readiness for rural students in the Northwest region of Illinois. Maybe it could serve at least one student in that region who otherwise would never have known there are resources in Unit 1 counties ready for them to access.  

What makes the work you are doing as an ISPP Scholar meaningful to you?

The work I am doing on Dual Credit as an ISPP scholar is meaningful to me personally and professionally. I took all my senior-year high school classes at a community college. Having a college in high school background attracted me to working with the Illinois Board of Higher Education (IBHE) on their College Readiness Project. As the first person in my family to pursue higher education, I had no idea what college culture was like. Having a year of early college exposure started to process of making college real for me, rather than just a fantasy. And I still struggled throughout my college years. Higher education has a culture of its own. Even if a student from a historically underrepresented student has the intellect, the desire, and the drive to succeed in higher education, the lack of culture that comes by proxy to family, friends, or communities with historical access reveals the importance of social and cultural knowledge to a student’s success. Having an opportunity to collaborate professionally on the College Readiness project with my Extension Mentor and IBHE is meaningful to me because of how important an early college pathway was in my own educational journey.

What is one thing that you have learned since becoming an ISPP Scholar that has made an impression on your transition from graduate student to career individual?

Over the past five-months of being an ISPP Scholar I have learned so many things about the importance of applying my educational skills through public service. Working as part of a collaborative research team on the topic of Higher Education in Prison (HEP) has strengthened my views about the value of working in teams made up of diverse thinkers from a variety of fields and backgrounds. I had this view as graduate student, but the fact of its actualizing organically as an ISPP Scholar has left a big impression on me. Overhearing a conversation about Illinois Board of Higher Education starting to conduct research on HEP programs in the state of Illinois, I asked my supervisor if I could work on this project. With his guidance, I began my work on the project by emailing people affiliated with HEP, contacts provided me by my IBHE supervisor. After a month, we took note of two of those contacted. They stood out to us because of how fast they were in responding to us, the ease to which they shared their insights on the topic, and they enthusiasm they had for our ideas on how to grow the HEP presence in Illinois.  Because of the ease in which all of us began collaborating on the topic, we decided to form a collaborative research team to present about our various perceptions about the importance of HEP at the Illinois Association for Institutional Research 2022 52nd Annual Forum, October 24-25, 2022. Our four-person team is made up of views that are informed by academia, government, and judiciary fields. Together we reflect the wide-reaching nature of the goal to increase equity to quality higher education by including justice-involved persons. We started working together in August and continue to work together expanding on our first insights. To date we have accomplished the writing, sending out, and now analyzing responses to, a questionnaire about HEP programs in the state of Illinois. Not to mention planning, co-creating, and giving a one-hour panel presentation at this year’s Illinois Association for Institutional Research Annual Forum in October 2022. Our next steps include more presentations on HEP and publishing our findings in a peer-reviewed scholarly journal. Throughout this process of collaborative team research, writing, and presenting, I have learned there can be joy in group work when it is made up of a team of people committed to diverse ways of thinking. Furthermore, it has provided me with evidence that communities of practice can produce good research and writing. Perhaps public service is helping to broaden my views of what constitutes an academic career, challenging traditional beliefs about the act of isolation as a necessary condition of being an academic. I am curious about what else I will discover during my time as an ISPP Scholar collaborating in a team made up of pluralistic viewpoints.

If you could do one thing through this program and think “Wow, I did that,” what would you like it to be?

One thing I would like to do through this program is produce an educational webinar about Dual Credit for Extension’s Unit 1 rural communities. Accomplishing this educational resource would mean that I expanded my skills by doing scholarship at the intersection of public service and academia. Engaging with Illinois’s Dual Quality Credit Act revised legislation in the context of IBHE’s mission of equity for all students, while making it relevant to the actual students living in the rural counties of Northwest Illinois would make me think, “Wow, I did that. Through being an ISPP Scholar 2023 I made a positive impact by promoting state legislation, advocating for rural communities, and representing the integrity of University of Illinois scholarship.”

More information about the Illini Science Policy Program is available on our website.Keep reading to learn more about MC's colleagues in the of 2023 ISPP Scholar Class.