A portrait of Darris Means
Features & Articles

Where you come from matters when it comes to college

  • Community Impact
  • Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
  • Faculty
  • School of Education

Darris R. Means’ most cherished childhood memories center around the tractors, garden and pigs at his grandparents’ home in South Carolina. While it wasn’t quite farm country, his time spent among the turkeys and chickens rooted in him an early appreciation for the cultural elements of rural life.

As he got older, though, he started wondering about the challenges his grandparents faced growing up in rural Spartanburg County.

“I began to think more about my personal connections across rural communities,” said Means, a University of Pittsburgh School of Education associate professor and qualitative researcher.

Those ideas evolved into a passion for researching education inequities within rural populations — a little-studied group when it comes to retention and recruitment in higher education. The experiences of Black youth living in rural America, especially, are often ignored, even though one in seven Black public school students attends a rural school.  

“Researchers, educators and policymakers have an opportunity to improve practices and policies that will enhance the educational experiences and outcomes of rural Black youth,” said Means.

His work to do just that has received national acclaim and solidified him as a standout advocate for low-income students, students of color and rural students.

The gaps around access to and persistence in higher education are not by happenstance.

Darris Means

Earlier this year, the Dean’s Faculty Scholar in Equity, Justice and Rural Education was named a 2023 Emerging Scholar by Diverse: Issues in Higher Education. More recently, he was elected to the executive board of the National Rural Education Association, a leading voice for rural schools and communities nationwide. And beginning July 1, Means will serve as executive director for Rural Education and Community-Based Education within Pitt’s School of Education. He’s also preparing to publish findings from his 2021 Richard P. Nathan Public Policy Fellowship for the Rockefeller Institute of Government.

Building pathways to college

Means has long championed diversity and equity in secondary and higher education. While earning his bachelor’s from Elon University, a master’s from Clemson University and a doctorate from North Carolina State University, he found ways to generate tangible impact, like aiding the launch of the Elon Academy, a college access program for students with financial need. 

“The gaps around access to and persistence in higher education are not by happenstance,” he said. “We need to pay attention as we work to support and amplify more rural Black youth on their pathways to and through college.”

[Read more: Meet Pitt’s new rural recruiter]

A portrait of Means

During his doctoral work in North Carolina, Means collaborated with a team of graduate students and a faculty member to interview Black students from a rural community about their college and career aspirations. As he engaged in the study, he realized that conversations in research, policy and media about rural people primarily centered on white people and their narratives.

“That got me thinking about how little we discuss the intersection of being rural and Black,” said Means.

What the research team found was rural Black students had encouragement from their families, school counselors, teachers and coaches to pursue postsecondary education. However, students experienced academic and financial constraints connected to class, spatial and racial inequities.

“Where you live and where you attend school can shape access to opportunities and resources. That also applies on a global scale. We need to spend more time discussing spatial and place-based equity and justice and thinking about how it intersects with other forms of oppression. It’s about disrupting monolithic portrayals of rural communities,” he said.

Pitt pathways to equity

Means says that, in addition to his grandparents, his inspirations are bell hooks and Pitt’s Renée and Richard Goldman Dean of the School of Education Valerie Kinloch. He noted that her unrivaled work ensuring the School of Education focuses on addressing educational injustices is what brought him to Pitt in 2020.

“To be successful as a research scholar means collaborating with people who have vision that allows the capacity to do more,” said Means. 

He and Kinloch formed a committee to develop more Pitt initiatives and partnerships with rural schools and communities. The committee’s strategic plan is based on data collected from three schools in Western Pennsylvania through listening sessions that involved more than 70 students, parents, school board members, teachers, staff, principals, superintendents and district-level administrators.

“We need to begin with listening,” said Means, who emphasizes building rapport and sustaining relationships with community organizations and partners.  

Means is working with colleagues to launch programming this summer to expand collaborations focused on spatial equity and justice in rural communities across the University, Pennsylvania, the nation and the globe

Jenay Willis is a higher education doctoral candidate and graduate research assistant working with Means during his Rockefeller Fellowship. She followed Means to Pitt from the University of Georgia, she said, because he embodies moving theory into practice.

A portrait of Willis

“As someone who identifies as a rural Southern Black woman, I often see myself in the work of Dr. Means,” said Willis. “His work is significant in challenging the deficit narratives of rural populations, specifically rural students, through critical and asset-based lenses. It is an honor to work alongside him.”

As Means continues to disrupt educational inequities, he’s challenged decision-makers to consider the assets and networks rural students bring to the table — and the powerful outcomes that occur when they’re given space and agency.

“That is why I wanted to pursue the faculty route,” said Means. “This is an opportunity to work with students who had similar experiences as me, to engage in research that could have implications for many more and support them as they navigate their pathways to college.”


— Kara Henderson, photography by Tom Altany