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Reaching Across Difference: Deaweh Benson, IEP'17

Deaweh BensonDeaweh Benson first realized she was meant to be an educator when she traveled abroad to teach English in China.

“I not only fell in love with the classroom, but I also recognized how important it is for students to experience and determine their role in the world,” says Benson, who returned to the United States inspired to launch a summer reading program where she took parents and children on educational trips around their hometown — and hers — Washington D.C.

Those two experiences led Benson to HGSE’s International Education Policy (IEP) Program where she hoped to learn how to engage students of color in study abroad programs. Through her coursework and other experiences at the Ed School including Askwith Forums on citizenship and diversity, Benson says, her goals have expanded. She is now focused on “helping students interact across difference” — an interest she parlayed into the founding of ImpactED, a student group focused on advancing more accessible and culturally affirming educational environments.

“Throughout the year Deaweh Benson demonstrated the curious, open, inquisitive, and reflective mindset essential in an academic community,” says Professor Fernando Reimers, faculty director of IEP. “She also led honest conversations about the ways in which students in the International Education Policy Program could, as educators, advance equity and help overcome the bigotry, racism, and other forms of discrimination in the United States and around the world…. [With ImpactED, she] created opportunities for students in the program to deepen and sustain their work as leaders advancing equity and social justice at a time when this work has become more contested and the courage necessary to do it greater.”

Benson will be awarded the Intellectual Contribution Award at Convocation on May 24. Here, she reflects on her time at HGSE and her life in education.

What will you change in education and why? I will change student misconceptions of their perceived limitations. I will produce research and design effective programs that will support students as they identify their own strategies to disrupt systemic social ills.

How did you stay inspired throughout the year? I remained inspired by attending events that involved presentations led by students. The opportunity to witness the hard work and sheer excellence of other students was always uplifting. I will never forget the Double Take event where I had the chance to listen to personal stories, and further recognize the passion the collective HGSE community holds towards improving education.

What advice do you have for next year’s students going through your program? You can do anything, but you cannot do everything. There are so many opportunities throughout Harvard. However, be intentional and plan how you choose to participate in activities. My strategy was to seek a balance in the three activities I attended each week. I attended one event related to my career interests, one event that was interesting yet completely unrelated to my career interests, and one social event each week.

If you could transport one thing from HGSE to your next destination, what would it be? I wish I could take Gutman Double Chocolate cookies with me!

What lesson from HGSE will you take with you throughout your career in education? One central message that has been embedded throughout my experience at HGSE is that we are not meant to solve complex education challenges in siloes. I had group projects and activities in every course this year. The practice of working in teams with brilliant and highly opinionated peers challenged me to investigate my own assumptions and view issues from varying lens. Ultimately, I recognize how essential it is to actively seek feedback before making decisions that will impact others.

Read about the other recipients of this year's Intellectual Contribution Award.