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Bringing Active Listening to International Development: Sarah Osborne, IEP'19

The Intellectual Contribution Award recipient for International Education Policy reflects on her time at HGSE and looks toward the future.
Sarah Osborne

Photo by Jill Anderson

The Intellectual Contribution Award is an honor that recognizes 13 Ed.M. students (one from each Ed.M. program) whose dedication to scholarship enhanced HGSE’s academic community and positively affected fellow students. The award will be presented at Convocation on May 29.

Having worked in international development before coming to HGSE, Sarah Osborne already had quite a bit of experience and global knowledge. But she was also eager to encounter new ideas and worldviews through her classes and her colleagues. She comes away from her time at HGSE with a new tool to effect change in international development: true, active listening.

“Around the world, communities have different ways of experiencing and understanding the world and [constructing] truth than the pillars of internal validity, and I think that we must keep our biases about what constitutes knowledge in mind when working on anything internationally and in the name of ‘development,’” she says.

Though Osborne focused on quantitative methods and evaluations, she also thought about how to keep people and communities central to the work. “‘Science is only one way of knowing.’ I’ll never forget that line from one of my readings,” Osborne says. “I reflect a lot now about concerns of ‘over-researching’ programs, and an over emphasis on looking for answers to research questions which were designed without the involvement of communities. One of the biggest problems that I have come to see in development is that we don’t actually have a strong understanding of the challenges communities are facing, and the current structure of the field doesn’t allow for that to be learned.”

Obsorne’s belief in facilitating dialogue, mutual learning, and inclusion was recognized by this year’s International Education Policy (IEP) Program cohort, which has honored her with the Intellectual Contribution Award.

“Sarah has demonstrated a deep understanding of the importance and power of collaboration and of the value of the diversity present in this group, in ways which have been generous as well as effective,” says Professor Fernando Reimers, faculty director of IEP. “She has, in this way, contributed to the program’s aspiration to prepare all graduates to lead collectively to shape effective ecosystems of educational opportunity. And she has done all of this without calling attention to herself but allowing her peers to truly feel it was all done collectively.”

Here Osborne reflects on her year at HGSE.

What was your greatest fear before attending HGSE? I was concerned that coming to a place like Harvard would lack humility, and that the experience here would be so far removed from the communities we serve that we would risk losing sight of them, and our own humility in the process. While I still worry about this, I am incredibly grateful to the community of peers here, who always seek to keep children and individuals at the center of education research and practice. I am consistently so impressed by and grateful for the consideration and thoughtfulness of the HGSE community, in particular that of professors like Emmerich Davies, for always helping to keep things down to earth and in perspective.

Is there any professor or class that significantly shaped your experience at the Ed School? I am incredibly grateful to the quantitative analysis sequence at HGSE, and the dedication of Joe McIntyre, Andrew Ho, and Jimmy Kim. The Ed School is truly phenomenal at teaching statistics and the practical implications of quantitative research (with a focus on the “why” and the “so what”) — and that practical significance should never outweigh statistical significance. These courses (S040, S052, and S032) and professors merged educational pedagogical research into their own practice. The dedication of the faculty to interpret “I don’t understand” as an opportunity to rephrase or keep trying to explain until it’s clear is something for which I’m truly grateful.

What advice do you have for next year’s students going through your program? Learn from one another, at every opportunity! I consistently tell everyone who asks me about my graduate school experience that the best part is undoubtedly the people that you are able to surround yourself with. Everyone is coming here with a wealth of experiences and background that is invaluable to your learning and time here at every opportunity. I believe fully in the power of collaboration and collective learning through experiences, and there are so many opportunities at HGSE to learn from peers — whether through discussion and respectful debate in class, presentations or workshops, or over a beer after class somewhere in the Square. Take advantage of every opportunity to get to get to know your peers!

If you could transport one person/place/thing from HGSE and/or Cambridge to your next destination, what would it be? Gutman Café chicken tenders!

Despite your busy schedule, you always make time for … Spending quality time with friends — long conversations over a beer, snowball fights, music nights, going on walks, exploring Boston, and more. I value both the breadth and depth of the relationships that I have built over the course of this year, which I know I will take with me throughout my life.

Read about the other recipients of the Intellectual Contribution Award and learn more about HGSE Commencement 2019.