Researcher Insights: Publications with a Purpose

Ryan Leibowitz is an SMU graduate student studying Applied Statistics and Data Analytics and serves as the graduate research assistant within the RLSH’s Office of Academic Initiatives. He began researching with the Academic Initiatives program during his undergraduate career at SMU. 

“What drew me to this team was the ability to use my data analysis skills from my statistics courses and writing skills from my University Honors Program (UHP) courses to produce original research and ultimately, improve the experience for those living on campus,” Leibowitz said.

This year, Leibowitz is working on two research projects: one with Engage Dallas, the other studying the reasons students depart SMU before graduation.

Engage Dallas, the Residential Commons-based service and community engagement initiative recently completed its first year of operation. SMU created the program to represent its commitment to addressing community needs in South and West Dallas. Engage Dallas is student-led and partners with local residents, organizations, and other leaders to positively impact the community. With the program now in full swing, Leibowitz’s team is conducting research “evaluating the impacts of Engage Dallas on participants and student leaders.”

“We are hoping that this study will help us illustrate the impacts that place-based community engagement can have on the campus community,” Leibowitz said.

The research sub-team for this project includes Leibowitz, Dr. Dustin Grabsch, Dr. Caitlin Anderson, and Jennifer Ebinger, and is housed within the larger Engage Dallas implementation team on campus. This supplemental research arose with the holistic development of the Engage Dallas program. 

“When Engage Dallas was conceptualized, one of its main tenets was equal emphasis on campus and community impact,” Leibowitz said. “As Engage Dallas came into being, we realized that we wanted to measure its effects on both the students participating in community service and the student leaders directing the service to quantify its impact on campus.”

The team hopes to expand upon this project and develop new research studies concerning the impact of Engage Dallas on the community in the future. 

The second project, which is in its final stages, worked to “characterize non-returning college students and their Departure intentions.” In other words, understand why students left SMU before they graduated. 

“This research will help us recommend improvements to institutional practices at SMU  – and other universities – to improve the student experience,” Leibowitz said. 

The research team for this project consisted of Leibowitz, Dr. Grabsch, Zak Waddell, Dedeepya Chinnam, Lauren O’Brien, Caroline Kirschner, and Michelle Madsen. The group derived this project from another study that looked at the motivations of students who leave SMU, and the need to categorize these students based on why they left. 

“Prior to 2019, when an academic success office was created, university forms that documented student reasons for departing campus were not widely circulated and so this project was focused on improving data collection and organization practices that were started in recent years,” Leibowitz said. 

The team hopes that the study’s findings will aid SMU and other institutions in decreasing student attrition and providing more resources to students on campus. 

“The main conclusions we’ve drawn from this study are that it is necessary to divide non-returning students into subpopulations based on departure intentions; certain student demographic groups experience disproportionate numbers of non-returning students, and it is essential to capture student voice through intentionality-focused questions at the time of departure,” said Leibowitz.

The original study covered student attrition and the reasons why these students left SMU was accepted and published within the Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory, and Practice on Thanksgiving Day. 

I’m so excited to have a project accepted for publication because our team spent a lot of time over the summer working through data, and it feels good to see our results recognized by the higher education community,” Leibowitz said. Overall, the research Leibowitz is involved with on-campus contributes to a greater purpose of improving the SMU student experience. 


Student leaders, faculty, and staff members encourage COVID-19 vaccination to stay #MustangStrong in new campaign

Led by the SMU Community Action Network (SMU CAN), members of the Mustang community shared short videos about why they received the COVID-19 vaccination. Reasons included living with immunocompromised family members, keeping young children safe as they are too young for vaccination, protecting their community, and more.

According to the original charge of SMU CAN, Provost Loboa and VPSA Mmeje shared “SMU CAN was established to support a greater understanding and adoption of the personal responsibilities needed to keep our campus safe and healthy.” President Turner, Vice President of Student Affairs (VPSA) Mmeje, and Student Trustee Nia Kamau are among SMU community members who recorded and posted a video. Residence Life and Student Housing also had a number of Faculty-in-Residence and staff submit their reasons too. Check out and share a few videos for yourself.

All students, faculty, and staff are encouraged to record and post their own video using the hashtag #MustangStrong.

Ware Commons hosted Oktoberfest 2021

Oktoberfest 2021

With the promise of food, kegged root beer and a good time, members of the SMU community gathered on Oct. 5 in the Ware/Kathy Crow lawn to celebrate Oktoberfest. An annual Ware Commons tradition aimed at bringing the residential community together, Oktoberfest celebrates all things fall.

In addition to a spread of food and drink, the festival also offers fun activities like pumpkin painting and stein-hoisting as well as the opportunity for students to converse and unwind at the midpoint of the first semester.

The yearly festival is planned by the Ware Commons Council.

According to Marketing Chair Emily Pinson, a large amount of work goes into organizing the event.

“Our commons council works hard to make sure that every aspect of the event is well planned, especially when it comes to approving contracts and ensuring that we have all the necessary games and food,” said Pinson.

This intensive preparation resulted in an inviting and enjoyable atmosphere for many students who attended the event.

According to Ware Commons Council President Chloe Leal, the student turnout and energy were greater than last year’s Oktoberfest, mostly due to fewer Covid-19 pandemic restrictions. “Turnout was certainly bigger this year, last year we had to be very vigilant and mindful of social distancing measures and safety in our logistical planning…we even set up stakes and ropes to control the flow of traffic as people navigated the activities,” said Leal.

According to both Pinson and Leal, the eased restrictions allowed for an overall more enjoyable experience for both the attendees and those who planned the event.

“I was so happy to see people be able to freely enjoy one activity or another and actually eat together with friends,” said Leal.

Aside from Oktoberfest, Ware Commons also hosts Krewe Du Ware–Ware Commons’ take on Mardi Gras–during Fat Tuesday.

Leal encourages all students who either enjoyed Oktoberfest or missed out to attend. “It’s known to be one of the most blown-out, most memorable events in the Residential Commons community, we usually hand out brand new Ware swag then, fly in food straight from New Orleans and have lots of activities and entertainment…it’s always a blast,” said Leal.


RLSH welcomes new assistant director of marketing and communications

Residence Life and Student Housing is pleased to announce the newest member of the Office of Academic Initiatives team!

Beryl Hellinghausen will join RLSH as our new Assistant Director of Marketing and Communications beginning today, Monday, November 8!

Beryl Hellinghausen has been part of the SMU community since she started her undergraduate career here and later graduated with her Bachelors from SMU in 2014. While she left for a few years to explore the American Southwest, she returned in 2018 to begin working at the Hart Center for Engineering Leadership at the SMU Lyle School of Engineering.

There, Beryl has enjoyed working in student development, fostering leadership and undergraduate research initiatives, along with leading the Hart Center’s marketing team. She has recently graduated with her Master’s in Higher Education from SMU Simmons School of Education and Human Development in May of 2021. Beryl is a member of the Mortar Board National Honors Society and has been serving as a member of their Branding Committee for the past year. Beryl enjoys knitting, camping, and watching bad movies with her partner.

Beryl will provide leadership for marketing and communication efforts for the three-office unit including but not limited to: developing, writing, and disseminated marketing materials to current and prospective residents; recruit, hire, and lead the RLSH Street Team – a student-driven marketing team; coordinate with university partners in producing housing-specific marketing; and managing content for the RLSH website.

Dedeepya Chinnam selected as a NASPA Undergraduate Fellow

Dedeepya Chinnam has been announced as a NASPA Undergraduate Fellow!

SMU Junior Dedeepya Chinnam, member of the RLSH Research Team, has been selected as a NASPA Undergraduate Fellows Program (NUFP) fellow!

“I found out about the NASPA Program through Dr. Dustin Grabsch while we were applying to present in NASPA Annual Conference,” Dedeepya said. “Dustin spoke about his experiences with the program and the influence it had on his current career trajectory. Along with the large circle of like-minded people I would be able to meet, the number of opportunities to learn within academia was appealing to me.”

The NUFP is a program that allows students to “increase the number of historically disenfranchised and underrepresented professionals in student affairs and higher education” and “have opportunities for scholarships, on-campus mentorship, and professional development events.” 

As a fellow, Dedeepya will have access to NUFP national and regional conferences and the ability to participate in semi-structured learning experiences within the Division of Student Affairs at SMU.

I hope to be able to attend workshops and training programs within the community to learn more about various areas of student affairs and understand the interrelationships and transferability within the student affairs sphere,” Dedeepya said. “I would like to hopefully attend the leadership program offered for NASPA Fellows and interact with people from various backgrounds with a shared focus of equitability and student success.”

Dedeepya also hopes to join the summer internship program offered within NASPA.

Fellows and mentors apply to the program as a pair. Residence Life & Student Housing (RLSH) Director of Academic Initiatives, Dr. Dustin Grabsch, will be Dedeepya’s mentor for the program. Congratulations to Dedeepya Chinnam!


RLSH publishes first annual research review

The Residence Life & Student Housing interdisciplinary research team published their first annual RLSH Research Review.

The review is a collection of research projects conducted within SMU’s residential communities from the 2020 – 2021 academic year. Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of RLSH, Melinda Carlson shared, “In [RLSH] we strongly believe that using data to better understand our students and our own operations paves the way to developing new, innovative approaches for better serve students.” The review is one way to demonstrate the unit’s progress to this end. 

The research team has been investigating timely topics, like the impact of COVID-19 on the college student experience and longstanding questions related to the impact of the Residential Commons model on the residential student experience. Director of Academic Initiatives and a leader of the research team, Dr. Dustin Grabsch shared, “We’ve also been hard at work exploring ways we can better serve underrepresented students and improve our professional onboarding practices to enhance our effectiveness. Explore for yourself the research projects and their associated deliverables completed this academic year.”

Click the gif below to read more about our research with impact.

Instagram Live sessions planned for residential communities on July 19

Residence Life and Student Housing has scheduled Instagram Live sessions for students and families to see their assigned residential community on Monday, July 19! Join us for your community’s session below.

Download the PDF of the Instagram Live schedule.

What is Instagram Live?

Instagram Live is a feature that works within Instagram Stories and allows users to broadcast live videos to other users on the platform. Instagram Stories are shown at the top of the feed. Any accounts that are currently live will include the “Live” icon.

To view an Instagram Live video, simply tap on the Story thumbnail. The image below of John Mayer performing on Instagram Live shows the viewer’s interface.

Missed your Instagram Live session? 

Follow your residential community on Instagram and visit their saved stories to view the session content.

Important deadlines approaching – Updates and reminders for a smooth Move-In  

Residence Life and Student Housing is eagerly awaiting and preparing for the return of students to campus in August. The best way to ensure a smooth move-in process for you or your student is to make sure you meet deadlines for your SMU ID photo, move-in timeslot, and loft request (see below for dates). This allows our team to be ready for your arrival.  

The following updates and reminders about these items and much more were sent to residential students on June 18, 2021:  


* * * 


We hope your summer is off to a good start.  Here are some reminders, important dates, and other information as you prepare for August move-in.  Please be sure to read the e-mail in its entirety, as there are some upcoming deadlines and other action items included. 

SMU ID Photo Upload 

All incoming students will need to upload a self-photo for the SMU ID on the ID Card System. The deadline to complete this task is July 1.  Please note that students without an approved SMUID Card photo are not eligible to get their housing assignment in mid-July.  It is important to complete this task by July 1.  

Sign Up for a Move in Time for Fall Semester 

We know that many of you may be eager to set your travel plans in place. You can sign-up for a move-in time in the SMU Housing Portal. Please note, time slots are available on a first come, first served basis and may fill quickly. If your plans change, you are able to modify your timeslot until the deadline, July 31. 

Loft Request Information and Planning 

Many students choose to have their beds lofted. The loft request form is available on the SMU Housing Portal.  The deadline to submit a request is July 31.  Requests received after the deadline will be completed after move-in. 

What to Pack 

As you prepare to join us on campus, look at our helpful packing guides to ensure you bring the essentials and leave at home items SMU already provides! Also be sure to read through our prohibited items list so you stay safe while on campus: 

Meal Plan Information 

All students living in the residential commons, Perkins Hall and Smith Hall are required to have a meal plan.  The SMU Dining Services website has information about meal plans, flex dollars, dining locations, dining menus, sustainability and health and wellness.  

Helpful Information to Consider 

As you prepare for your arrival to the Hilltop, follow the links below for more information. 

You probably have many questions about what you will experience this fall.  Be sure to check your email regularly so you don’t miss important information.  Here’s when you can expect to hear from us again: 

Mid-July: New Student Building Assignments and Move-In Instructions 

July 19: Live video tours of your assigned building.  More details will be included in the New Student Building Assignment email 

Early August: Roommate Confirmations and Final Move-In Details 

Your SMU e-mail address will be our primary means of communication. Please be on the lookout for more updates! Pony Up! 


#BlackAtSMU Film Set to Premiere April 21

The #BlackAtSMU film centers around five tweets posted by Black students about their experiences at SMU in 2020. Each tweet will have its own dedicated chapter in the film and address the topics of police brutality, racism in the classroom, in athletics, and Greek life at SMU through documentary and narrative film segments. The film is directed by SMU students Aysia Lane and Crislyn Fayson. 


Image promoting the film
Image by #BlackAtSMU

After wrapping up filming in February and March, the #BlackAtSMU film is set to premiere Wednesday, April 21 at 8p.m. on Dallas Hall Lawn.


The film is the result of nearly nine months’ worth of planning and study, and the dedicated work ethic of the film’s entire production crew and cast.  


“Crislyn really put in a lot of legwork December in January to prepare for February shooting,” Aysia said. “And that’s also with our producer Jillian Taylor. That’s also with Shara our assistant director, as with Amber and then Everton Melo…The amount of work that went in on that front side was insane. We had eight hour 10 hour calls. I’m planning, planning, planning, like making sure we have like a very firm outline, making sure like the vision is very clear.” 


Crislyn and Aysia initially heard about the film through word of mouth, from fellow Meadows students. Professor Amber Bemak was inspired to make a film about the tweets, and so the two joined her class, which centered on research and discussions about race. 


At the end of the semester, the two found out they were the only ones able to continue with the course and documentary, and became co-directors for the film.  


 “And then all of winter break, we just hit the ground running with bringing this to life,” Aysia said. 


Part of that process was obtaining funding, which the HUB and RLSH Academic Initiatives contributed to after Crislyn had a chance conversation with Dr. Dustin Grabsch at the Owens Arts Center.


“He ends up asking me about my major and stuff and I end up telling him that we’re planning to make a film about #BlackAtSMU,” Crislyn said. “He gave me his card and I gave it to Amber, and little did I know. Little did we know that he would bless us with an opportunity we never would have thought.” 


In addition to the HUB and RLSH Academic Initiatives, Film & Media Arts Studies Division, Ignite/Arts Dallas, SMU Meadows School of the Arts, and Engaged Learning are contributors.


Another part of the production process included building the production crew and cast. Crislyn and Aysia said the auditions left them amazed. 


“The level of talent at this school is unreal,” Aysia said. “The work ethic of these actors, of the talent that we’re working with – unreal, they’re amazing. And the way that they were able to tell these stories that have been just like living in our heads for so long, and then translate it so beautifully on screen – I could have never asked for anything better in 1000 years, they were so amazing.” 


During production, Aysia and Crislyn focused in on how they were going to tell the story, and thought a lot about who this story was for.


“Because I think originally, our hearts were naturally thinking of the people who would possibly be negatively impacted, who might be like, ‘Whoa, I feel like this is about me or white people,’” Crislyn said. “We were worried about white people, and what they would think. And we realized what a hindrance that was to the tweets, to the storytellers, to the courage that it took for them to do that, in spite of what they may face. So we did a 180.” 


Aysia agreed, saying that getting the students’ stories right was important to the both of them. 


“There were moments where I was like, Okay, are we really doing their story?” Aysia said. “What would they actually do? Are we telling it accurately –  asking them like, do you feel like this is accurate, is accurate? You’re feeling what you were thinking. Because at the end of the day, like, like we said, we won’t be here. We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for those stories. And they’re trying to tell that story. So I think it was really important for us to make sure that we’re staying true to that, that we’re showcasing it properly, and that most importantly, people can relate to it.”


That idea was part of the driving force for creating this film.


“I will say for me, being black at SMU, and knowing due to its history that this campus, this school was not created for you from its foundation,” Crislyn said. “In having to deal with and face the repercussions of that history as a black student directly is enough, more than enough, to take action.” 


Aysia and Crislyn believe this film will help facilitate a long-awaited discussion about race and SMU. 


“All those weird feelings that we have when talking about race – this film is going to be a way of foundation, a platform for people to have these discussions,” Aysia said. “And to make it like okay, well, we watched this together, we experienced this together. Let’s talk about it finally.”


The film is set to premiere on April 21, 2021. Follow the @blackatsmufilm handle on Instagram for updates and relevant links to the film. There will be a facilitation of a semi-structured discussion following the premiere.


Meet the Directors


Aysia Lane


Aysia Lane is majoring in Journalism and Film, with an Arts Entrepreneurship minor. In addition to co-directing the #BlackAtSMU film, she is an editor and podcast producer at the Daily Campus, PR for the Association of Black Students, and works with Undergraduate Admissions in Meadows. 


Crislyn Fayson


Crislyn Fayson is majoring in Theater and Film. In addition to co-directing the #BlackAtSMU film, she is involved with BLM at SMU, and is a leader for Cru student ministry on campus. 


Researcher Insights: Mixing it Up

SMU Undergraduate Researcher Dedeepya Chinnam is currently a member of the Academic Initiatives Research Team. Dedeepya is a sophomore studying Business Analytics and Supply Chain Management and Statistics, and plans to add Economics to her degree. On campus, she participates as a Caswell Leadership Coach with the Office of Student Experience, Secretary for both the Indian Student Association and Liberty in North Korea (LiNK), and Treasurer for  Feminist Equality Movement and Hegi Career Development Ambassadors. She also founded the KPOP Club among many other accomplishments. Dedeepya joined the research team in November 2020. 

The project, A Sequential Exploratory Mixed-Methods Study: Motivations of Undergraduate Students to Pursue Multiple Majors, aims to analyze why students choose to study multiple majors to aid the development of and understanding for curriculum committees, academic departments, and collegiate administrators.

The team comprised of six people: advisor Dr. Dustin Grabsch, Dr. Sheri Kunovich, Laura Bell, Hannah Webb, Ryan Leibowitz, and Dedeepya Chinnam. Dr. Grabsch led and designed the project, and Dr. Kunovich helped with data collection, organization, and secondary coding and qualitative analysis. 

“Ryan, Hannah, and I were the undergraduate research assistants and have been responsible for initial secondary research and literature review,” Dedeepya said. “We have recently completely 37 interviews with Laura and Dustin. We are conducting qualitative coding using the thought unit coding for all the interviews which we will then assess to form categories and derive themes from established categories.”

The study consisted of qualitative and quantitative factors, which is why it’s called a mixed methods study. By collecting and analyzing both qualitative and quantitative factors, the study provides a deeper dive into the motivations of students. The main qualitative component, student interviews, concluded March 14. The interviewees were selected through the random sampling of a roster of multiple-majoring students. Out of 200 emails sent out to those selected, 37 interviewed and completed a demographic survey. Quantitative data collection will be through a survey.

“We are still in the process of [analyzing the data] and have not determined the underlying common themes but there are some commonalities in terms of motivations, disadvantages, and advantages of multiple majoring that are already arising which we are excited to be looking into,” Dedeepya said. 

After the initial round of interviews, the team held a second peer debrief session focused on discussing specific factors that led students to pursue multiple majors. These factors included the influence of family or friends, having an innate love of learning, or gaining new perspectives and ways of thinking through exposure to more of their peers. 

“[The participants] think it is an important factor to consider especially at SMU since multiple majoring is a part of the culture at SMU,” Dedeepya said. “An interesting conversation that I had with a couple of students was about how their perception on this matter is influenced by the groups they are exposed to and think through the research they would be able to get a more informed idea on motivations and thought process of other students who decide to follow a similar path as them.” 

The study found the concept of multiple majoring a huge part of perceived SMU culture. The results of the study should help to inform faculty and advisors about students’ academic decisions and aid the students in their educational goals.

“For example, when asked how many people in the student population might be multiple majoring at SMU most students thought realistically it would be 60-70% though they feel like it is 80% most times,” Dedeepya said. “This is different from the actual percentage of students pursuing multiple majors at SMU, but it shows the impact multiple majoring has on our community.” 

Dedeepya says the team hopes to send the study for review and publication by the end of the Spring 2021 semester. She credits the team’s fast-paced work method and consistent, weekly check-ins for the efficiency of the project. 

“One of our team members was talking about compared to how tiring this semester has been – be it the snow week, the lack of cohesiveness in class structuring due to that or the lack of spring break – the research has been a steady and consistent effort every week and it is super helpful since we know what to expect and put time aside for,” Dedeepya said. 

According to Dedeepya, participating in this research – and student research in general – provides great opportunities to learn how to improve the student experience, provide learning experiences, and helps develop critical thinking and team collaboration.

“I think it makes me self-aware of points of growth and help me work from there through the reflection I get to do as I go through the research process,” Dedeepya said. “I also gain firsthand access and support to faculty and professors on campus from whom I can learn from greatly.” 

Dedeepya wanted to join the team for a myriad of reasons, including making a visible, positive impact for her university community, participating in collaborative, purposeful projects, and to further develop learning skills that would aid in pursuing her future career.

“It was an avenue to explore research since I am considering going on to graduate school and becoming a professor,” Dedeepya said. “The experience I am gaining here has nothing but reinforced my interest in the field.”

Dedeepya participated in SMU Research Days this year. You can watch her presentation on the SMU Research Days 2021 website! Dedeepya says the group also plans to have the manuscript completed by the end of the semester, and will eventually present their information to the SMU Division of Student Affairs for professional development. 

Want to learn more? Head to the RLSH research webpage to read more about our individual research projects.


A Sequential Exploratory Mixed-Methods Study: Motivations of Undergraduate Students to Pursue Multiple Majors (SMU IRB: H21-004-GRAD) 

This project seeks to understand the motivations of undergraduate students to pursue multiple majors. Utilizing a sequential, exploratory mixed-methods design, in phase one we will interview students who are currently pursuing multiple majors to determine themes in their expressed motivations. Following the development of themes, we will issue a brief survey instrument to undergraduate students with multiple majors to determine the prevalence of each motivation theme within the student body. Findings will aid undergraduate general education curriculum committees, academic departments, and higher education institution administrators. 


Dedeepya can be contacted at If you’d like to learn more about the Academic Initiatives Research Team, please email


by Laura Bell, Sarah Venables