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Pickett Recognized for Outstanding Dissertation

The Southern Association of College Student Affairs Selects 2022 Dissertation of the Year

As a second-year college student, Craig Pickett, Jr. struggled with the “sophomore slump.” He wasn’t alone. In fact, research shows that nearly 25% of second-year students experience feelings of isolation and confusion ranging from their personal lives to their professional ambitions. For African American students at predominately white colleges, the sophomore slump can be an even greater challenge, as he experienced first-hand.

Craig Pickett at desk

Craig Pickett, Jr.

As a doctoral student at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences (CEHHS), Pickett focused his research on the lived experiences of male African American second-year students at predominantly white institutions (PWIs) as they navigated barriers associated with the sophomore slump. Pickett also integrated critical race theory as a conceptual lens to examine racism, inequality, and the inequitable distribution of racialized power and privilege within the structure of a college campus.

Picket’s dissertation entitled, A Phenomenological Exploration of the Lived Experiences of Second-Year African American Male Students on Predominantly White Campuses through the Lens of Critical Race Theory, was recently selected by The Southern Association for College Student Affairs (SACSA) as the 2022 Dissertation of the Year. SASCA is a regional student affairs association representing 14 southern states and focuses on inclusiveness, professionalism, and collegiality.

“My hope is that this study opens the door to more intentional efforts from colleges and universities to address the issues that students, particularly African American male students, face on predominantly white college campuses, including academic hardships, mental health issues, faculty engagement, and harsh/racialized campus climates,” said Pickett.

Throughout the course of his research, Pickett conducted a series of Zoom interviews with nine African American male college seniors at PWIs. Using open-ended questions, Pickett found four issues emerging from the discussions: academic confusion, mental health concerns, faculty relations, and maturation. When using critical race analysis, two additional themes of campus hostility/peer engagement and greater representation also emerged. Pickett’s research points out ways that colleges and universities can create a more welcoming and supportive atmosphere for second-year students.

“Faculty, student affairs practitioners, and senior-level administrators can implement a myriad of programs to promote holistic development and success amongst African American male students at PWIs,” said Pickett. “The implementation of developmental advising techniques focusing on relationship-building and cultural competency, creating targeted mental health initiatives, developing student-faculty mentoring programs specifically for African American male students, and implementing campus initiatives that promote a more welcoming, safe, and inclusive campus climate.”

In his role as Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture (UTIA), Pickett found that his dissertation research helped clarify his daily purpose. His work covers three UTIA units: the Herbert College of Agriculture, UT Extension, and UT AgResearch. While some progress is being made for students from all backgrounds to succeed, Pickett says that we still have a lot of work to do.

“Each day, I strive to create academic environments that promote a greater sense of belonging, address academic disparities, and develop solutions to inequities both inside and outside of the classroom,” said Pickett.

“I am extremely proud of Craig Pickett. This award is further evidence that his dissertation addressed a critical issue in academia and that it made a contribution to the body of knowledge about Black male experiences, student affairs, and higher education,” said Dorian McCoy, Pickett’s Dissertation Chair and CEHHS Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.

Throughout his six-year doctoral journey, Picket is grateful for the encouragement of his support network, especially from his wife Porschia and Dorian McCoy. He hopes to “pay it forward” using his research to promote student success and create pathways for future scholars.

“I hope to continuously serve as an advocate for the underserved/underrepresented, and help administrators develop and implement initiatives that both eliminate barriers and promote student success,” said Pickett.

Through its eight departments and 12 centers, the UT Knoxville College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences enhances the quality of life for all through research, outreach, and practice. Find out more at