After seven years, Sherry Deckman, Ed.M.’07, Ed.D.’13, of York, Penn. (the birthplace of the peppermint patty, she points out), feels like she’s been at HGSE for a long time and yet not that long at all.
“I’ve had so many wonderful opportunities at HGSE and Harvard — like serving on the editorial board for the Harvard Educational Review, being a resident tutor at Adams House, working on a number of different research projects, and teaching my own course — and have met some of the most amazing people that it almost doesn’t seem long enough,” she says.
Before she heads to Ithaca College where she’ll work as an assistant professor in the education department, teaching social and cultural foundations of education, she had one more task at HGSE: Commencement Marshal. Deckman was selected as marshal by her peers for outstanding leadership, involvement in the life of the community, service to the community and others, and for being an exemplary representative of HGSE. “Given the caliber of leadership among my classmates who are also graduating, I am humbled by this distinction and I feel like I share it with them,” Deckman says. “It’s through their support that I’ve been able to succeed here.”
Deckman answered some questions about her time at HGSE, the doctoral experience, and life beyond.
When did you first come to HGSE and why? I first came to HGSE in the fall of 2006 to begin my doctoral studies. I was choosing among a couple of programs and chose HGSE because of the strength of the faculty and the resources at the school. HGSE was also different from other schools in the flexibility doctoral students had in terms of being able to chose their own research projects to become involved with and professors with whom they’d work.
Why did you choose to pursue a doctorate? I like to jokingly say that I didn’t have anything better going on, so I figured, why not? In actuality, I have long been committed to promoting social justice through educational equity. I saw earning a doctorate as a pathway to increasing my impact in that field — I envisioned going on to become a researcher and professor working with aspiring educators after my doctoral studies, which is precisely what I will do.
What would you say was the best and worst part of the experience? By far, the best part of this experience has been the people I’ve had the opportunity to meet and form relationships with. I think of my dissertation and qualifying paper committee members, my doctoral writing group, my Harvard Ed Review colleagues and my cohort members, not to mention the master’s students each year who bring a real intensity to their one year of studies, as shaping my experience and transforming my views of education in many ways.
I don’t like the idea of categorizing anything as the “worst” part of this experience. However, I will say that completing a doctorate and getting an academic job feels a little bit like academic hazing! It can be hard to stay focused on and committed to a project that takes as long to bring from the stage of conception to a written piece of work as a dissertation. But, I feel very fortunate that for my dissertation, I was able to work with an inspirational Harvard undergraduate organization, the Kuumba Singers. The passion of the young people in the organization was bolstering even in the tough times, for example after the umpteenth round of edits on my writing!
How did you stay inspired? Last summer when I was in the throes of dissertation work and not seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, a friend and colleague in higher education told me, “Just remember, we’re fighting for something.” She meant to remind me that both she and I and many others in the field of education, have chosen to do this work because we think it’s important and matters daily in the lives of young people and educators. Now, any time I get caught up in the tediousness of my research — like when I had to take certification tests in order to renew my IRB this past winter — I think of that and it keeps me going. I also think of the high school students I first began teaching in Washington, D.C. right after undergrad. I think of how unfairly the school system was structured and how that impacted the opportunities they had. Finally, I think of my own family and not only how education has been a major factor in opportunities, or lack thereof, but also of their unwavering support for me.
Any advice for students who want to take on doctoral studies? Make the most of the relationships you can form while pursuing your studies, both with professors and with other students. They will be your support and understand exactly what you are going through and they will also be there to challenge you when you have become complacent or don’t realize your full potential. They will also be part of your permanent personal and professional network moving forward. I’d also say to remember that imagination is important. Keep thinking about what might be possible even if it doesn’t seem realistic at the time.
What was the focus of your dissertation in a nutshell? I explored the role of racial diversity in the Kuumba Singers of Harvard College. The choir is known as Harvard’s oldest black student organization and also the school’s largest multicultural organization.
I have always been interested in issues of racial diversity and met a number of “Kuumbabes” in my work with Harvard undergraduates. They seemed to be doing something very special in the way the group negotiates being a black student organization committed to being a safe space for black students, while being known as being exceptionally welcoming to students of all racial backgrounds. I thought there might be important lessons from the group that could be applicable to other contexts.
How will you make an impact the world of education? I intend to continue pursuing my interests in educational equity and will have the opportunity to work with aspiring teachers at Ithaca College.