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University of Phoenix College of Doctoral Studies' Workforce Diversity and Inclusion Research Chair Dr. Kimberly Underwood Highlights Studies on the Importance of Professional Social Capital and Belonging in the Workforce and Higher Education

Dr. Kimberly Underwood featured in media tour on research findings from studies led by Dr. Marlene Blake and Dr. Sandra Sessoms-Penny which will be presented at the 2024 Inclusive Leadership Summit

University of Phoenix College of Doctoral Studies Center for Workforce Diversity and Inclusion Research (CWDIR) Chair Kimberly Underwood, Ph.D., MBA, led a media tour on May 30 highlighting the findings of two CWDIR studies on the role of professional social capital and the importance of belonging in the workforce and higher education.

“Professional social capital is the resources that arise from the web of relationships we build with those around us and that contribute to our professional goals,” Underwood shares. “In our parallel studies focused on higher education and the workforce, we explored how the presence or absence of social capital impacts a sense of belonging for students and workers of color.”

The studies were launched by CWDIR to introduce the research focus on professional social capital and students of color through the partnership between University of Phoenix and Jobs for the Future’s Center for Racial Economic Equity. Following the findings of the inaugural Career Optimism Index® study by University of Phoenix Career Institute®, the partnership was formed to cultivate more effective approaches to improving professional social capital for Black learners and workers.

“Belonging is good for business,” states Underwood. “Leaders need to take a more active role in the process of employee development and move beyond simply providing the resources for onboarding and functioning within one’s current position. When leaders become co-pilots within the continued development of all employees, it helps all employees to identify and utilize resources that are not always readily available.”

The workforce study, “How Employees of Color Experience a Sense of Belonging Within the Work Environment,” led by Sandra Sessons-Penny, Ed.D., fellow, CWDIR, and College faculty, found that employees who experience a sense of belonging at work are more inclined to remain, excel and support the organization’s brand, culture, and vision.

“Employees are making strategic decisions about what they need within working environments. And many within this study noted a willingness to leave their organizations if they feel they do not belong,” Underwood states.

The higher education study, “How Higher Education Leaders Can Help Students of Color Thrive by Building Belonging,” led by Marlene Blake, Ph.D., fellow, CWDIR and College doctoral area chair, investigated how students of color may encounter exclusion experiences in educational institutions resulting in lower levels of sense of belonging. “Findings from our higher education study suggest students of color experience a higher sense of belonging when there is the strong presence of support services, faculty interactions, and career development resources,” Underwood shares.

A discussion of the findings will be featured at the 2024 Inclusive Leadership Summit, held June 11-13. Themed “Transparency as the catalyst for belonging,” this virtual event invites participants to delve into the pivotal role of transparency in fostering diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB). Registration is still available for the Summit, a free virtual event open to the public.

As the CWDIR Chair, Underwood guides many faculty, students, and alumni in research and scholarship focused on various aspects of DEIB in higher education and the workforce. She also serves as the Executive Sponsor of the Research, Scholarship, and Thought Leadership working group within the University of Phoenix President’s Advisory Council on Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging. She is a highly sought after subject matter expert and consultant for various internal Colleges and departments and several external organizations to advance their DEIB strategies and initiatives. Underwood is the recipient of the UPCEA Research and Scholarship Award for 2023.

About the College of Doctoral Studies

University of Phoenix’s College of Doctoral Studies focuses on today’s challenging business and organizational needs, from addressing critical social issues to developing solutions to accelerate community building and industry growth. The College’s research program is built around the Scholar, Practitioner, Leader Model which puts students in the center of the Doctoral Education Ecosystem® with experts, resources and tools to help prepare them to be a leader in their organization, industry and community. Through this program, students and researchers work with organizations to conduct research that can be applied in the workplace in real time.

About University of Phoenix

University of Phoenix innovates to help working adults enhance their careers and develop skills in a rapidly changing world. Flexible schedules, relevant courses, interactive learning, skills-mapped curriculum for our bachelor’s and master’s degree programs and a Career Services for Life® commitment help students more effectively pursue career and personal aspirations while balancing their busy lives. For more information, visit


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