Photo by Jill Anderson
Elizabeth Adelman has always felt at home somewhere just off the beaten path — as a traveler, an educator, and a scholar. With her adventurous spirit — and her motivation to ask and answer the kinds of questions that will drive better outcomes for some of the world’s most vulnerable students — Adelman comfortably straddles the line between research and practice.
She has spent more than 15 years working in international education and development in Africa, Asia, Latin American and the Middle East, developing areas of expertise that include literacy in early grades and education in crisis and conflict settings. Her recent work has documented the experiences of teachers who are working to educate Syrian refugee children in Lebanon. She has sought to elevate their voices and to understand how they think about and manage their obligations to their students.
We caught up with Adelman as the year wound down, just as she was making preparations to officially leave her “student” days behind, after seven years at HGSE — and managing all the emotions that come along with endings and new beginnings. Fortunately, she’s making a comfortable transition, serving as a postdoctoral researcher working alongside her mentor and longtime collaborator, Sarah Dryden-Peterson.
What drew you, from relatively early on, to education — and to international education?
My second-grade teacher, Ms. Nelson, told me I should be a teacher. I think it was because I was particularly adept at managing the behavior of my fellow students, even when I was not encouraged to do so! But education has always been with me, as well as my desire to travel to places off the beaten trail. During college I chose to study abroad in Concepcion, Chile, specifically because it was not a tourist destination and because at the time, there were very few foreigners there at all. When I moved back to Concepcion in 2002, after finishing my undergraduate degree, it just seemed natural to look for a teaching position. I eventually ran my own English language institute at one of the major ports in the area. When I was ready to continue my own education, the biggest questions I was interested in grappling with were all related to international development, in particular how to ensure equal access to quality education in contexts where much of life was so very unequal. It seemed a degree in international education policy would be the right fit.
What brought you to — and kept you at — HGSE?
I applied to the International Education Policy (IEP) master’s program at HGSE as it seemed very aligned with my interests. I also liked the fact that the required courses, including statistics and economics, were courses I would never choose for myself. My background in is comparative literature, and before IEP, the last time I had taken a math course was in high school. I wanted to learn both new content and new skills, as well as work with professors who had an interest in Latin America. I had a very hard and very enriching year at HGSE and not only learned a lot from my courses but was so fortunate to have an amazing cohort of fellow IEP students, many of whom I am still in touch with today.
During that time, I took a module on education in emergencies taught by an advanced doctoral student, Sarah Dryden-Peterson. The course was one of my favorites as a master’s student. When I left Harvard, I had a feeling I would be back. After working for a few years within the education development sector, I came back to Harvard as an Ed.D. student. Soon after, much to my extreme delight and extreme fortune, Sarah Dryden-Peterson also made her way back to HGSE as a professor. I started working with Sarah the year she joined the faculty and have been learning from her since.
How will you connect your doctoral work to the real-world challenges, tensions, and opportunities in the field of education — in either local or global contexts?
Throughout my time at HGSE, I have kept one foot in academia and one foot in the field. In fact, I feel much more comfortable within the role of practitioner than within the role of academic. I am currently reflecting on these questions from the airport in Lebanon, where I just spent a week presenting research, conducting research, and working with practitioners to improve programing for Syrian refugees. I don't think it would be possible for me to disconnect my doctoral work from real-world challenges. I will simply continue as I always have, trying to ask and answer the right questions with the goal of strengthening education opportunities for students in fragile and conflict settings.
What was most challenging about your time at HGSE?
Much of my time at HGSE encompassed large challenges, many of which were more personal than professional, including moving to Lebanon for my dissertation research, having my first child far away from the support of family and friends, and then deciding to leave Beirut, where I had established deep friendships and strong professional networks, and head back to Cambridge now as a mom and not just a student. However, I think the hardest thing has really been the shifting of identities that inevitably comes as one path finds an end and another begins. I have now been at Harvard for seven years and it will be an adjustment to shed the identity of Harvard student and all the benefits, and drawbacks, that come with it. I look forward to the new identity I build but definitely find it challenging to leave parts of the old one behind.
The friendships and connections I have built across cohorts, across campus, across research sites, and across countries have been by far, the most rewarding part of my time at Harvard. These relationships have pushed me to grow both personally and professionally and have supported me through the toughest moments and celebrated me through the greatest experiences.
Why do you think you were chosen to be a marshal this year? Were you surprised?
I was very surprised, and very honored, to be chosen as marshal this year. It is particularly meaningful as I am Ed.D. marshal alongside Deepa Vasudevan, who is a fellow Haverford College graduate. Havefordians are a special breed and I have always felt a special connection to Deepa given our shared alma mater. Deepa is an amazing individual, full of intelligence, kindness and warmth and I am extremely happy to see her recognized.
I really cannot tell you why I was chosen to be a marshal. I will say that I place great value and importance in the relationships I have developed with my fellow students. My life has been deeply enriched by these friendships and I feel extremely fortunate to have had the chance to build meaningful connections with so many unique individuals.