Brock Scholar and elementary education major Rebekah Cahill has attended numerous Honors College conferences during her time as a University of Tennessee at Chattanooga student, calling the trips “one of my favorite parts about being in honors. I love getting to meet students from all different parts of the country and doing a lot of networking.”
She can add earning recognition to her personal “favorite parts” list.
Cahill, who will be graduating from UTC in December, placed second in the 2023 Sloane Prize for Undergraduate Research (SPUR) poster competition at the 58th annual National Collegiate Honors Council (NCHC) conference in Chicago.
NCHC’s annual meeting is the second-largest all-discipline undergraduate research conference and the largest national gathering of honors educators, administrators and staff members. SPUR award winners were selected from more than 250 student participants who presented posters in various categories.
Cahill, a native of Alabaster, Alabama, placed second out of 29 presenters in the Education and Pedagogy category. Her departmental honors thesis, directed by Dr. Rachael Davis, was titled “School District Gerrymandering and Student Performance: A Look into How Central Alabama Is Failing Its Most Vulnerable Students.”
Like Cahill, Davis grew up in Jefferson County in Alabama, located in the central portion of the state.
“It turned out to be kind of kismet,” Davis said. “She was talking to us about the differences of gerrymandering and succession in school systems inside of Jefferson County, Alabama, and I knew exactly what she was talking about because I lived there. It’s one of those things that’s really difficult to explain to someone who didn’t grow up in Jefferson County.
“Rebekah did a fantastic job explaining and presenting at the National Collegiate Honors Conference—and she just passed her thesis defense last week. She is an absolutely outstanding scholar.”
For her project, Cahill analyzed 2019-2020 third-grade reading achievement scores across 12 school districts located in Jefferson County to make the case that intentional student segregation by socioeconomic status, known as SES, has created an environment where lower SES are set up for academic failure.
She began researching the topic as a high school senior at Jefferson County International Baccalaureate School (JCIB).
“This was a culmination of years and years of research,” Cahill said. “Everyone who goes to JCIB and lives there is aware of the gerrymandering and the segregation of school districts. But it’s not something that’s really formally discussed; it’s kind of just known.
“So in high school, I decided to look at the relationship between student socioeconomic class and proficiency. That was where I started taking this idea of what everyone knew was happening and turning it into something quantifiable.”
Cahill continued to be very interested in researching educational inequality during her time in the UTC Honors College, she said, and the topic became the subject of her honors thesis.
“In my thesis, I talk about teacher qualifications, teacher retention, things like that, and just the curriculum availability—all the different things that go into giving someone a high-quality education, which is a student’s right in the United States,” she said. “The research that I did at NCHC and for my thesis is kind of like a culmination of three or four different projects I’ve done since I was a senior in high school.”
Dr. Linda Frost, dean of the UTC Honors College, lauded Cahill’s placing at the Chicago NCHC conference.
“Rebekah’s award is indicative of several things,” Frost said. “First, it is a testimony to the impressive work she has done on her departmental honors thesis. Second, it shows Rebekah’s overall concern for the importance of education as a means by which we can increase or, in this case, decrease equity. Third, it shows us how great our students’ work really is. We are all so proud.”
This was the second consecutive year a UTC student placed in the NHCH poster competition. At the 2022 conference in Dallas, Jannat Saaed’s “Circe to Desi: The Five Stages” won first place in the Arts and Humanities category.
While at UTC, Cahill was a student assistant director for the Honors College and a student research fellow. She also worked with Teach for America and its Ignite Fellowship, tutoring different grade levels and spent this semester as a student teacher at Battle Academy in Chattanooga.
Cahill said she officially submitted her honors thesis while in Chicago, “so I presented my research and finished my actual paper. It felt like a breath of fresh air lifted off my shoulders.”
“Even if I would not have placed, I still would’ve been very proud of my project because I know what I’m doing is important,” she said. “When you feel personally about the subject, it makes it much easier to be proud of what you’ve done. These aren’t just random students who I’ve selected from. I mean, my siblings are students in Jefferson County, Alabama.
“Receiving the recognition just kind of reaffirmed to me that what I was doing was important and that my years of research really did pay off.”