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Meet Ph.D. Marshal Daphne Penn

Understanding schools as a microcosm of society — and exploring questions of whether and how education can truly be a tool for mobility.
Daphne Penn
Photo: Molly Akin

Daphne Penn, Ed.M.'17, Ph.D.'20, had looked forward to her doctoral graduation ceremony for years — even skipping previous ceremonies for her two master's degrees as she eagerly awaited the true culmination of a journey marked by passion, perseverence, and an abiding interest in understanding what prevents schools from delivering on the promise of education for all of their students. But, as with so much else this spring, those plans — and the plans of her family to be with her in Cambridge during Commencement week — were disrupted. But Penn has found a way to remain positive — to celebrate the wins (first and foremost defending a dissertation!) even while navigating the uncertainties of the current moment.

As the capstone of a Harvard career that has seen her immerse herself in student life across the university, she'll be returning to Harvard next fall as an education fellow at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences while working on a book project that grows out of her study of unaccompanied minors and the significant barriers they face as they attempt to acclimate to schools that are often under-resourced, and already stigmatized.

Describe your dissertation project — and how it speaks to your broader research interests.
My interdisciplinary research agenda is driven by the belief that, in order to understand and address the root causes of educational inequality, we must examine schools as a microcosm of society. I am generally concerned with how public schools are shaped by and respond to the broader social, political, and economic forces within their local contexts. Along those lines, my current research focuses on how the new demography of the American South is shaping politics, governance, and equity in K-12 schools.

My dissertation, The American Dream Deferred: Education and Immigrant Incorporation in the Nuevo South, explores how the educational incorporation of unaccompanied minors from Guatemala complicates and is complicated by the ongoing quest for equity in educational policy and practice at a historic — yet stigmatized — African American high school in the U.S. South. Specifically, I examine how newcomers’ integration into an under-resourced, de facto segregated school shapes their educational trajectories as well as their social construction as potential beneficiaries of education reform in a context that has remained largely untouched by immigration until recently. I draw on archival data, interviews with key stakeholders, and participant observations conducted between August 2018 and December 2019 to explore the politics of demographic change at the school. My research demonstrates how school resource constraints, institutionally embedded practices among educators, and the social construction of older adolescent immigrants as low-wage workers—rather than students — contributed to a two-tiered system of education at the school and constrained newcomers’ ability to use education as a tool for social mobility.

Was there one surprising thing that you learned during the course of your project?
The unaccompanied minors in my study made long and dangerous journeys to the United States in order to build a better life. Although most people view education as essential to the pursuit of the American Dream, newcomers’ backgrounds and contexts of reception established school as an impediment, rather than a pathway, to achieving their definition of success. The American Dream for the newcomers in my study was explicitly tied to financially providing for their families back home. However, when they arrived in the United States, they inherited a new way of life that did not align with their expectations.

Specifically, school choice had a very unique meaning in the lives of the Guatemala-origin unaccompanied minors at my research site. Unlike the United States educational system, schooling in Guatemala is only compulsory for students until the sixth grade. Therefore, the vast majority of newcomers arrived with interrupted educational journeys, and they were often surprised to learn that they were required to attend school until they reached the age of 18. Ultimately, many of them were forced to balance full-time work in order to fulfill their economic commitments while also regularly attending school. Unfortunately, many newcomers began experiencing the social, emotional, and physical consequences associated with this balancing act.

How do you hope this research — and your ongoing work — will help shape the field of education, either in practice or in future scholarly understandings?
Immigrant-origin children are one of the fastest-growing segments of the population; therefore, I hope my research provides insight into the challenges that schools face as they work to integrate and educate culturally and linguistically diverse populations. I want my research to spark conversations about how to both support and hold schools accountable as they work to build on newcomers’ strengths and address their unique struggles.
You did a great Twitter thread on the confusion that the pandemic caused, just as you were finishing your dissertation and hitting the job market. How are you navigating this moment, and what’s next for you professionally?
The past few months have been marked by uncertainty about my future in academia. However, I’ve decided to celebrate small wins and focus on the few things that are within my control. I am very passionate about my research; therefore, I hit the ground running after defending my dissertation. I am currently writing a manuscript for submission to a scholarly journal based on my archival, interview, and ethnographic data. I am also enrolled in a book proposal accelerator program, which is guiding me through the process of transforming my dissertation into a scholarly monograph. I will spend the next year as a visiting fellow in education at Harvard's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. During my time as a fellow, I plan to apply for postdoctoral fellowships and will write a book proposal for submission to an academic press.
You mentioned the personal impact, too — as a first-generation doctoral student, you had expected that your family would be able to gather and celebrate, and that you’d be able to experience the milestone with your mentors, in person. How are you feeling, and what are you doing to mark the occasion?
>As the first person in my family to graduate from college and earn a doctorate, the opportunity to celebrate this moment with my family would have meant the world to me. In fact, I skipped both of my master’s degree ceremonies in anticipation of a week-long doctoral celebration in Cambridge. My parents and siblings requested time off work more than a year ago and spent just as much time saving for their first visit to Harvard. I never imagined that the past six years of hard work would end with a remote dissertation defense and virtual robing and commencement ceremonies that didn’t include an actual celebration with the people who supported me along the way. My doctoral journey has been far from easy; therefore, while I didn’t pursue a Ph.D. for the pomp and circumstance, I was certain that these culminating events would make every bitter moment sweet. With that said, I am incredibly proud and honored to have been selected as a Harvard Graduate School of Education Commencement marshal. I also genuinely appreciate everyone at Harvard who has worked to make this moment as special as possible. I look forward to the virtual ceremonies, which I plan to watch with family and friends at a remote viewing party.
Finally, can you reflect on the HGSE experience and what it has meant to you? What/who has been important to you, and what are you proudest of in your PhD journey?
As a doctoral student, I was very intentional in my efforts to close opportunity gaps at the postsecondary level and provide other students insight into the hidden curriculum of graduate school. During my six years at Harvard, I served as a representative on the GSAS Graduate Student Council, I was the 2015 program chair for the HGSE Student Research Conference, a resident adviser in the GSAS residence halls, the tri-chair of the 2016 Alumni of Color Conference, and the president of the GSAS W.E.B Du Bois Graduate Society.

In my various roles, I worked to improve student well-being and foster the academic and professional success of students from underrepresented backgrounds. I am particularly proud of my work with the GSAS W.E.B Du Bois Society and the HGSE Alumni of Color Conference. As the 2016 AOCC tri-chair, I helped to recruit, train, and manage more than 25 graduate students as we developed the conference theme, recruited keynote speakers, and organized more than 75 submissions into interactive panels and informative workshops. Through the Du Bois Society, I co-designed an annual workshop aimed at helping students from underrepresented backgrounds apply for nationally competitive fellowships. Of the 30 graduate students who attended the 2016- 2017 fellowship workshop, eight were awarded Ford Foundation Predoctoral Fellowships. Those experiences were my proudest moments at Harvard because they allowed me to build my capacity as a leader and provided me with the opportunity to work alongside and on behalf of groups historically underrepresented in the academy.

It’s also important for me to note that, prior to beginning my doctoral studies, people warned me that the journey would be lonely. However, I have been blessed with mentors, colleagues, and friends who successfully challenged the notion that earning a doctorate is a solitary endeavor. I am thankful to my dissertation committee, Professors Roberto Gonzales, Martin West, and Lawrence D. Bobo. The respect and admiration I have for my committee motivated me to produce good work. I appreciate my friends, cohort, and colleagues for learning and laughing with me over the past six years. Harvard’s administrative staff — including GSAS and HGSE faculty assistants, the Doctoral Programs Office, the HGSE Office of Student Affairs, the GSAS Office of Diversity and Minority Affairs, and the GSAS Office of Residential Life — are the unsung heroes of the university. Their support sustained me when I felt overwhelmed and invisible. Because of them, Harvard felt like home.

Last, but certainly not least, I am thankful for my family, who supported me throughout my doctoral journey and helped me to remain grounded.

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