Date Approved


Degree Type

Open Access Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department or School

Teacher Education

Committee Member

Valerie Polakow, Ph.D., Chair

Committee Member

Wendy Burke, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Ethan Lowenstein, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Lynn Nybell, Ph.D.


This qualitative dissertation study explored the construct of academic optimism and its manifestation in the schooling lives of low-income, African American females who have obtained post-secondary educational status. The study also examined the facilitators and barriers the participants have encountered on their academic journeys towards the attainment of a fouryear college degree. The construct of academic optimism has previously been applied to schools and educators. This research explored the construct of academic optimism as it related to students, in this instance, low-income, African American female college students. The research study also explored what factors contributed to low-income, African American women’s academic achievement in the face of the many challenges experienced in their urban school settings.

Life history methodology was employed to document the schooling experiences of the study’s participants. Open-ended and semi-structured interviews, which encouraged the participants to make meaning of their educational life histories, were conducted between December 2014 and July 2015 with 16 low-income, first-year, African American female college students. Students were selected from community colleges and four-year universities in southeast Michigan. Of the 16 research participants, nine participants’ life histories were constructed as case studies.

The analysis of findings from participants’ narratives revealed themes of parental abandonment; educational struggles—including math anxiety; the importance of supportive and caring adults—including family members, mentors, coaches, and teachers; and resilience and persistence. In addition, the students’ own perceptions of their resilience and efficacy formed a critical and revealing part of the study. This study concluded that the components of academic optimism—self-efficacy, relational trust, and academic emphasis—along with the character traits of resilience and persistence combined to create low-income, African American female students’ academic optimism.

Recommendations include changes to educational policies and practices in K-12 schooling and higher education in order to build social capital in the lives of low-income, female African American students.