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A Deep Commitment to Equity: Ewurama Okai, HEP'19

The Intellectual Contribution Award recipient for Higher Education reflects on her time at HGSE and looks toward the future.
Ewurama Okai

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.

When Ewurama Okai enrolled in the Higher Education Program (HEP), she was concerned that taking a year for her own learning might have unintended consequences. She didn’t want to lose sight of why she came to HGSE or, more importantly, who she came for.

“I was concerned that I’d lose contact with the consequences of the systems I came wanting to understand, and that I’d let the action of reading and thinking lull me into a system of analysis divorced from the structures that shape society,” she explains. “As it turned out, I needn’t have worried, because the thought partners I built relationships with kept me grounded.”

Initially curious about equity and belonging, and the challenges faced by higher education administrators when trying to facilitate both at their institutions, Okai has seen her goals expand in her year at HGSE.

“I no longer want to see how systems interact or understand equity, but I want to apply my abilities to [challenge] the premises and assumptions” around equity and belonging, she says.

Okai will keep that goal in mind as she continues to expand her understanding in the combined J.D.–Ph.D. programs at Northwestern’s Pritzker School of Law and Department of Sociology.

“Nominated by her peers, and widely-regarded by the [HEP] faculty as an intellectual leader, Ewurama has shown a deep commitment to issues of equity in higher education,” says Senior Lecturer James Antony, faculty director of HEP. With “her many contributions to classroom conversations, her exceptionally strong writing, and her commitment to pursuing a scholarly career that will advance the study of higher education, Ewurama is the perfect choice for this year’s Intellectual Contribution Award.”

Here, Okai reflects on her year at HGSE and looks at her future in education:

What is something that you learned at HGSE that you will take with you throughout your career in education? A lesson I am taking with me recently came into sharp focus through [Assistant Professor Jarvis] Givens’ Black Education course: where there are systems that oppress, there are people courageous enough to build for themselves what has not been given to them. As my career in education unfolds, I want nothing more than to enter every space with the humility that comes from that knowledge.

Is there any professor or class that significantly shaped your experience at the Ed School? Though she was technically neither my professor nor part of a class, my relationship with Tracie Jones [assistant director for Student Diversity and Inclusion Programs] significantly shaped my time at HGSE. From the minute I met her, she exuded joy, faith, and an uncanny ability to see potential in the world around her. As a visionary, she showed me that it is possible to take all the potential you can see and work hard to move the world closer to achieving it. She is a living example that lifelong learning is an active commitment that must be made every day to the people and places around us. Tracie taught me what it means to be graceful and gave me a place of refuge to be myself that I will forever be grateful for.

[Lecturer Houman] Harouni and his course Critical Theory transformed the trajectory of my existence at HGSE. Through it, I met people who share my desire to move through the world critically; I began to learn with a professor who embraces discomfort, care, and honesty as human realities of pedagogy; and I struggled with what it would take to know myself, and myself in relationship to others.

What advice do you have for the incoming class? Face yourself, and do it on purpose. Your time at HGSE can be a beautiful opportunity to learn about oneself — the good, the bad, and the ugly. But in order to do so, you have to be willing to face yourself, your beliefs, and the ideals that form the foundation of your life. So be willing to do it, put yourself in the positions, courses, and conversations that help you learn something about yourself. I did, and it meant a lot to me.

Despite your busy schedule, you always make time for … Musical interludes. I love to sing and dance, and I will always try to squeeze in music into my life, even if it’s a little jig on Appian Way in between classes.

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