Educational opportunities should never be dictated by a person’s finances, says Jamarcus Purley. This is a belief he’s held since his childhood in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, when he witnessed many in his community miss out on college solely due to its expense. His concern only grew as he embarked on a career as an educator.
“When I worked at J.A. Fair High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, one of my students dreamed of being a computer programmer and wanted to take a class or have a tutor who could teach her Python. I could not secure funding for her to have that opportunity,” he says. “I will work to ensure that socioeconomic status and geographic location no longer inhibit a student from being an ambitious learner.”
His own ambition to learn drove Purley to enroll in HGSE’s Education Policy and Management (EPM) Program, where he sought a deeper understanding of the government’s influence on K–12 funding, and how inequities in funding relate to disparities in graduation rates and access.
“I am still driven to resolve the financial inequities experienced by students in socioeconomically disadvantaged schools and communities, [but] my lens has changed,” he says, noting that he now is also exploring the impact of NGOs — particularly foundations — on these areas.
“Jamarcus is among the most intellectually curious and engaged students I’ve met. Whether it’s during class or in casual discussion, he always brings a uniquely insightful perspective to the conversation,” says Senior Lecturer Karen Mapp, director of EPM. “His classmates describe him as intelligent, passionate, humble, caring, and empathetic. His ability to be an active and compassionate listener while pushing others to think more critically has made the reach of his impact on the community so broad, positive, and an affirmation of HGSE’s values.”
Upon learning that he had been honored with the Intellectual Contribution/Faculty Tribute Award for EPM, Purley answered some questions about his time at the Ed School and beyond.
What is something that you learned at HGSE that you will take with you throughout your career in education? Before HGSE, I considered speaking for and shaping the perspectives of students and communities as my primary responsibility as an educator. My point of view shifted when I gained lots of insight from taking Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot’s The Ecology of Education course. I was privileged to have a phenomenal T.A. in [doctoral student] Eve Ewing, and through our section discussions, I stopped viewing myself as the savior of people whose experiences I do not live. Rather, I think it is a necessity to recognize the agency of students and communities to speak for themselves. I intend to work towards providing opportunities and forums for their voices to be heard.
Is there any other professor or class that significantly shaped your experience at the Ed School? Lecturer Terrence Tivnan’s ability to demystify statistics to empower students embodies the qualities I value as an educator. Courses that incorporate elements of math can be intimidating before the first lecture even takes place, and he does a phenomenal job of assuaging that initial anxiety. His pedagogical prowess is only surpassed by his passion for helping his students succeed. I learned a great deal from his course, and I am happy to know someone who owns multiple statistics-inspired hats.
How did you stay inspired throughout the year? I am still basking in the example my mother and father, Monica and Willis Girley Jr., set for me when they graduated from college in 2013. I gain from the love my little sisters, Tamirrah and Takaylah, and niece, Taleiyah, give me when they steal my parents’ phone to call and ask about my day.
This year, my older sister, Teneidra Watkins, has been my inspiration. Despite being a single mother (shout out to my niece Taleiyah) who has faced challenges of her own, she is only a few exams away from becoming a registered nurse. Her journey epitomizes the power of education as a tool of social mobility, and I would appreciate it if everybody could wish her the best of luck on finishing strong.
What advice do you have for next year’s students going through your program? Self-care can be a difficult topic to discuss with peers and family, so I think it is a necessity to have techniques to handle the academic and personal challenges you will face while at HGSE. I scheduled appointments at the Harvard University Health Services (HUHS), which was incredibly beneficial at helping me sort through stress and organize my priorities. Though I am sure you will find people at HGSE to be the confidantes you need, I recommend HUHS to any student seeking additional support.
If you could transport one person/place/thing from HGSE to your next destination, what would it be? I would transport the staff at HGSE, ranging from my family that works at the front desk of Gutman, to the unsung heroes of the Academic Affairs office, and every nook and cranny in between. It has been an extraordinary experience to learn from staff members who take as much time as needed to support my academic success and health as if I were a child of their own.
The number one, biggest surprise of the last year was … How much of a presence Dean Ryan has on the dance floor. I am still trying to gauge if it would be unprofessional to ask him if the two of us could open up a dance studio. TBD.