Community College Research Initiatives

Lia Wetzstein, Ph.D., Director

LIaWDr. Lia Wetzstein has varied research interests that revolve around education equity. These include community college transfer, supporting community college student success reforms, science, environmental and sustainability education, and program evaluation to improve the educational experiences of underserved students. Prior to her education research work, she worked in the natural sciences in higher education in multiple roles, including teaching, curriculum design, K-12 and community outreach.

Katie Kovacich, M.Ed., Research Project Manager

With an educational background in cultural anthropology, Katie Kovacich, earned her master’s degree inKatieK Educational, Leadership, and Policy Studies for Higher Education. Previous and ongoing national research contributions include a study on advancing equity outcomes using project-based learning curriculum in urban high school advanced placement classes, a STEM faculty impact study, community college transfer partnerships, and Coaching for Change (C4C) in the Student Success Center Network Coaching Program for implementing guided pathways nationally.

What most inspires Katie in her work is focusing on advancing equitable outcomes for minoritized student populations through bridging CCRI’s research with research-to-practice projects, such as C4C, that strive, through using evidence-based practices, to cause institutional and systemic transformation in higher education.

Leandra Cate, Ph.D., Research Scientist

Leandra’s research interests include organizational equity, social movements, and international students in postsecondary education. She recently completed a Ph.D. at Penn State University, where her dissertation research focused on the role of international students in graduate student unionization movements. Leandra’s work addresses the embedded assumptions within organizational processes, connecting them to broader questions of equity and social change in and through higher education. In addition to research, she has over 10 years of experience in community non-profit organizations working to address income inequality and racial injustice.

Krista Roekelle Castro Orejudos

Krista is a current sophomore at the University of Washington who is majoring in English: Creative Writing and minoring in Digital Textual Studies. She finds that supporting CCRI’s outreach, to help build its social media presence on Twitter and LinkedIn is a way to actualize her values and share this organization’s message. Moreover, working with CCRI has given Krista her first opportunity to work remotely. She has learned how to navigate personal strengths and weaknesses when it comes to remote working. She started her position in August of this year and believes she has grown confident in her interpersonal communication skills and her ability to design on a deadline.

Theresa Ling Yeh, Ph.D., Research Affiliate

Ling’s research focuses primarily on educational access, engagement, and persistence across the K-16 pipeline.TheresaLingYeh Her areas of expertise also include community engagement, mixed-methods research, and program evaluation.

In addition to research, Ling has over 15 years of professional experience working in the higher education and non-profit sectors, focusing on postsecondary access and retention, males of color, service-learning, diversity, and federal TRIO programs.

Kathryn Starkey, Ph.D., Research Affiliate

Kathryn recently defended her dissertation research on Prior
Learning Assessment policy in the state of Colorado to earn
her Ph.D. in Educational Leadership, Research, and Policy from the University of Colorado Colorado Springs. Her research interests include qualitative research methods, higher education policy, dual credit programming, and research on programs focused on providing access to education for incarcerated students. In addition to her experience in research, she is employed as the Adult Learning Lead Specialist at Colorado State University-Pueblo, developing programs, policies, and procedures to help foster retainment and completion rates among students throughout her community and the state of Colorado.

Jaylen Willingham, B.A., Digital Marketing & Communication Strategist

Jaylen is a recent first-generation college graduate from the University of Washington Seattle with an Honors B.A. in Communication and a minor in Informatics. His Honors Thesis, Exploring the Metamorphic Impact of a Student Support Program at the UW, was a foundational evaluation of a pilot student support program within the Office of Minority Affairs & Diversity (OMA&D) for low-income, first-generation, underrepresented minority Freshmen undergraduates. Jaylen is a two-time Mary Gates Scholar and now leads CCRI’s digital marketing and communication strategy.

Maria Claudia Soler, Ph.D., Research Affiliate

Maria Claudia is a research affiliate at CCRI and a research associate at the American Council on Education. She has domestic and international experience researching issues associated withMaria higher education access and success, especially those related to high school to college and school to work transitions, transfer, career pathways, career counseling, and financial aid. Prior to joining CCRI, Maria Claudia worked at the Office of Community College, Research and Leadership at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and at the Institute for Higher Education Policy. She also has prior experience working as a student development director, career counselor, and university lecturer. Maria Claudia holds a Ph.D. in Education Policy, Organization and Leadership focused in Higher Education from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, an M.A. in International Education Policy Analysis from Stanford University, and an M.A. in Clinical Psychology and a B.A. in psychology, both from Pontificia Universidad Javeriana.

Grant Blume, Ph.D., Affiliate Faculty

GrantBlumeGrant Blume, an associate teaching professor in the Evans School of Public Policy & Governance, teaches and conducts research in such areas as policy analysis, program evaluation, race and equity, and mixed methods. He earned his Ph.D. in 2016 from the Evans School and was a fellow of the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES) pre-doctoral training program at the University of Washington. Grant’s quantitative research experience includes working with large statewide data sets, analysis with multilevel models, and writing statistical code in R. He has also served as lead evaluator for a four-year U.S. Department of Labor Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training (TAACCCT) grant at a Washington State community college.

Debra D. Bragg, Ph.D., Founding Director


Dr. Bragg was director of the Community College Research Initiatives group from 2016 to 2020. Prior to joining the University of Washington, Dr. Bragg spent over 25 years at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where she was founding director of the Office of Community College Research and Leadership (OCCRL) and Gutgsell Endowed Professor of Education Policy, Organization, and Leadership, specializing in higher education policy. Dr. Bragg is a fellow of the American Educational Research Association (AERA), 2016 recipient of the Distinguished Career Award from the Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE), and 2017 recipient of the national Transfer Champion Award from the National Institute for the Study of Transfer Students (NISTS).