by Annie Dubois

Student success is both a personal and professional issue for Chastity D. Gaither, Ph.D., the 2021 University Innovation Alliance (UIA) fellow.

After becoming pregnant during her senior year of high school, Gaither, a hardworking, straight-A student, was unsure of what the future held. After receiving support from a high school counselor, Gaither was able to persevere and attend college despite the obstacles she faced. This life-changing experience would prove to be a catalyst for Gaither and inspire her to help students like herself succeed.

“My high school counselor Dr. Cheryl Mason asked if I still had a desire to go to college because she knew the pregnancy didn’t have to be the end of everything. So, I sat in her office one day and completed college applications,” Gaither said. “I never forgot that as part of my journey. Dr. Mason sowed a seed in me by acknowledging and validating me. She changed the trajectory of my life. If I can do that to just one more student in any way, that would mean everything to me. It makes me believe that this is my calling and that I’m here to help students.”

The UIA Fellowship will allow Gaither to hone skills within student success initiatives and focus on professional development. The Fellowship also provides opportunities to collaborate with 11 research universities across the U.S., including Arizona State University, Georgia State University, Iowa State University, The Ohio State University, Oregon State University, Purdue University, University of California-Riverside, University of Central Florida, The University of Kansas, and The University of Texas at Austin.

“What I really love about the position is the connection with other research universities across the nation, so I’m able to network and see what other universities are doing. I’m able to look at student success work from a different lens,” said Gaither. “I also love that this position focuses on professional development. It allows me the space to gain the knowledge I need or hone a skill set that I need, or whatever research interest I have.”

As a part of the Fellowship, Gaither is working on a Black student success initiative, which she hopes to design holistically by including input from faculty, staff, and students.

“When I think of student services, I like to look at the student holistically. We are not just academics. If we’re not doing well mentally or physically, we can’t really do well academically most times,” said Gaither. “It’s important to take a holistic approach and include faculty, staff, and students as the end user of these initiatives. You need to understand the end users, and work with students and get their input.”

Given that Gaither worked within the APUE office since November 2019, the UIA Fellowship seemed like a natural progression of her work at MSU. As a Student Research Assistant for the Associate Provost for Undergraduate Education, Gaither led and designed large-scale undergraduate research projects by conducting interviews, analyzing data, and writing policy reports.

Gaither also has worked as a Graduate Assistant for Assessment and Student Success within MSU’s Neighborhood Student Success Collaborative. In this position, Gaither helped design the Detroit M.A.D.E Scholars program (Mastering Academics Demonstrating Excellence) and constructed first-year seminar curriculum.

Gaither’s work at MSU ties into her Ph.D. in MSU’s College of Education Higher Adult & Lifelong Education program, which she completed in December 2020. Before coming to MSU for her Ph.D., Gaither was a campus Dean for Wayne County Community College District. Gaither was also the Associate Vice Chancellor for Administration & Finance for Wayne County Community College District. 

Beyond her work in higher education, Gaither is the founder of Core Elements Higher Education Resource Center, a nonprofit that works with students in grades 9-12 to provide accessible services and programs that empower, transform, and advance the knowledge of underrepresented individuals in pursuit of higher education. Core Elements gets students planning for their future by going on college tours, writing college application essays, and educating students about common scenarios faced in the first year of college, like how to email a professor and how to create a budget.

From the UIA fellowship to the Core Elements nonprofit, the common thread throughout Gaither’s lifelong dedication to student success is her own personal understanding of the obstacles many students face. 

“Most of the time when students aren’t successful, it’s not that they can’t do the work, it’s because of other factors. I think of myself and getting pregnant during high school, and I was a straight A student,” Gaither said. “Whatever path I take after the UIA fellowship, I’ll always want to have something to do with student success.”