The Impactful Work of Renée Wilkins-Clark

The Impactful Work of Renée Wilkins-Clark

As a family science researcher and expert, Wilkins-Clark contributes research that highlights family diversity in her field and creates meaningful moments for our first-generation students.

June 20, 2024

When Renée Wilkins-Clark, PhD, was growing up in West Tennessee—about an hour outside of Memphis— she couldn’t have known then the powerful impact that her family dynamics and the racial and socioeconomic inequities of her hometown would have on her life path and academic and professional pursuits. And she couldn’t have predicted the impact she would one day have on her field of applied family science or on the many first-generation students she’d teach and mentor at CU Denver. 

An assistant professor in Human Development and Family Relations in CU Denver’s School of Education & Human Development, Wilkins-Clark has a deeply personal connection to many of our students: She, too, was a first-gen student and had to navigate a college experience that was unfamiliar. And the road to Colorado was not without its challenges. 

“I grew up seeing a lot of the inequity in [my Tennessee] town,” noted Wilkins-Clark, who attributes these disparities to the legacy of segregation and structural inequality that extended to the school system. She added: “I think my parents saw education as a way to avoid some of the obstacles that they experienced.”  

She pushed through neighborhood dynamics and family transitions. Her parents divorced when she was 11 years old, which created disruption in her life and caused her to change schools a couple of times. This period in her life helped deepen her love of reading, particularly the fantasy genre, and expanded her vivid imagination. But she also felt the pressure of being an older sibling and a role model to a young brother. 

Her high performance in elementary and secondary schools enabled her to receive opportunities that others, even in her own family, did not. She was placed in her school’s gifted program, which provided exposure to more advanced study of topics, including the stock market and the French Revolution. She spent only three days in the 8th grade before being promoted to high school, and went on to compete in academic and mock trial competitions. Finding herself on an accelerated college track, she said she felt “a lot of pressure about going to a good school and the ‘right university.’” 

Her closeness to her family, her mom’s health, and the lingering financial impact of the recession led her to Memphis-based Christian Brothers University at first, then a transfer to Kansas State University, where she ultimately earned her bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees. Starting as a chemistry major, she soon transitioned to human development and family science after taking a class on gender roles within families. “It was an eye-opening sort of lightbulb moment where I feel like it put into context a lot of the things that I couldn’t really describe about both my life and my childhood—and also the things that I saw in general within the world,” Wilkins-Clark said. “It was the first time I could see some path for me in really impacting lives and lived experiences.” In addition to her roles as a student and researcher, she also gained experience as a teaching assistant and a member of Kansas State’s Graduate Student Council and Black Faculty and Staff Alliance.  

Her study and research of family dynamics—and the societal and structural forces that affect them—continued into graduate school, where she found mentorship among influential faculty and observed their work and experiences in the academy. At the time, she didn’t fully realize that only 3% of all faculty across the U.S. are Black women. Had she known, she might have been daunted by the odds.  

Fortunately, for the field of family science and CU Denver, she persisted. “I worked really hard on trying to set myself up, research wise,” she said, adding that she gravitated toward theory and research methods. She started her PhD program in 2019 and then experienced and pushed through other societal challenges that impacted her trajectory and her research: the pandemic and the nationwide racial violence that ensued. Through it all, she was also balancing a rich personal life that included being married and a mom to two children. 

When it came time to look for a job, Wilkins-Clark, who is a member of the National Council on Family Relations and a Certified Family Life Educator, was deliberate and selective. “I knew that if I had a choice, I wanted to go somewhere that was really at a place to start making meaningful and actionable steps when it came to social justice and equity, being able to have those conversations without feeling like I’m the only person advocating for those things,” she reflected. After some careful vetting on her part, she found that place at CU Denver, where she joined the faculty in August 2022. 

In terms of research, Wilkins-Clark continues to advance and innovate her field, with numerous published and submitted manuscripts, and more than a dozen national and international conference presentations to her name. Recently, she and her colleagues received grant funding to examine intergenerational racial and ethnic socialization and discrimination within Black and Latinx populations. She also sees great promise in connecting her work with neuroscience experts to further explore the negative relationships between discrimination stress and physiological changes that happen in the body as a result of these stressors. This type of interdisciplinarity is also a way to “bring the social and natural sciences closer together,” she said. 

In the classroom, she is now a sought-after faculty member among Lynx students, particularly those who are first generation and underrepresented. That’s because she can relate and provide a level of shared lived experience that matters to them. “For some of my students, they tell me that this is the first time they’ve been seen or heard,” she said. That is a powerful dynamic. 

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