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An Inspiring Force: Constance Gist, EPM'21

The Intellectual Contribution Award recipient for Education Policy and Management reflects on her time at HGSE and looks toward the future.
Constance Gist

Constance Gist: "On any given day, virtual school could be awkward or awesome, fun or frustrating, demanding or dull, but I stayed tethered to my ethernet cable, constantly learning something new."

Photo courtesy of Constance Gist

The Intellectual Contribution Award recognizes 12 Ed.M. students (one from each Ed.M. program) whose dedication to scholarship enhanced HGSE’s academic community and positively affected fellow students. Constance Gist will be honored with the Intellectual Contribution Award for Education Policy and Management (EPM) at HGSE's Virtual Commencement on May 27.

Senior Lecturer Karen Mapp, faculty director of EPM, comments on Gist's selection: “Constance Gist is an inspiring force in the field of education. Since last summer, Constance was committed to the work of building authentic and lasting connections within and beyond her EPM cohort — despite this year’s constraints of a two-dimensional, virtual universe. Our EPM and HGSE community is lucky to have benefited from her intentional focus on creating opportunities, both within and outside of class, for relationship building and intellectual discourse. In conversation, Constance always brings an energetically critical lens that always moves the discussion forward in a useful way.  In their nominations of Constance for this award, her fellow students stated:

  • 'Constance has the unique ability to offer and speak from a perspective which may not have been considered previously. She often gives an audience to the opinions that others may be afraid to express, yet does so eloquently, with dignity and aplomb.'
  • 'She has been a consistent voice since January challenging me to push my own thinking and analysis, and I'm grateful to have shared space with her.'
  • 'She shares her insights generously with her younger classmates, that is with compassion, maturity and good humor.  Her lived experiences add a voice of authenticity. In addition, she does so with so much empathy that classmates feel heard, and free to discuss their thoughts. Her feedback is on point and invites further thinking.'

"Congratulations, Constance, for this well deserved honor!”

We spoke to Gist about her time at HGSE, her future plans, and how the pandemic has changed the education landscape:

What does this photo mean to you?  

When I was admitted in Spring 2020, I was so excited about the prospect of returning to university during the penultimate chapter of my life (nod to SLL). As an act of celebration, I bought new walking shoes in anticipation of my daily trek to and from campus. I had no idea I would be entering the Greatest-Social-Adventure-Ever as a member of the COVID Class of ’21. As I buckled up for the stationary ride, I held on to the possibility of making lasting connections with new colleagues at HGSE. So, in addition to reclaiming an academic mindset, in zoom only classes, after an extended hiatus, I had figure out how to build relationships virtually — something I had not really done before.

On any given day, virtual school could be awkward or awesome, fun or frustrating, demanding or dull, but I stayed tethered to my ethernet cable, constantly learning something new. I more I became versed in the language of education the more I picked up on the inner workings of our sector and my understanding of education practitioners grew. I began to apprehend how we are all building our own unique paths to Changing the World through education.

The Appian Way was the first long road built specifically to transport troops outside the smaller region of greater Rome. The capillary roads fed into it and therewithin lies the origin story of why All Roads Lead to Rome. Although we didn't step foot on our own Appian Way this academic year, and those walking shoes are still in the box, each and every interaction I had with my HGSE colleagues, and the greater Harvard community, merged to become an enlightening experience. I am so grateful the entire community, allowed me to express my full self through Pop-Ups, class discussions, affinity groups, and even paraphernalia. Like all great adventures, the route is never straight, but because of HGSE, my perspectives on education are so much broader than I ever imagined.

In this year of remote learning, what were some of the ways you were able to connect with your peers?

Online learning meant we were at the mercy of abrupt stops — when Zoom ends, our social interaction ends too. We didn't have the chance to linger and carry on interesting conversation or overhear fascinating stories or even see the backs of each other's heads!

So, I had to learn how to do lots with little. I joined marathon Zoom meet and greets. We became masters at using the chat features by giving shout outs and passing notes to keep morale high. I dined outdoors, socially distanced, from alums. We traveled through time to brainstorm with overseas colleagues. Weekly group meetings morphed into philosophical brainstorming sessions. And I engaged in point/counter point rallies that took me out of my comfort zone. While it was a challenging transition, I am glad to say I will be leaving HGSE with both a great foundation in education and an impressive network.

"Education is messy! Yet, I am unapologetically drawn to this sector. I don’t believe there will be one savior in the education space, but rather, it will take a concerted effort of strong willed folx to bring awareness to inequities and who have the intellectual curiosity and drive to find solutions to address them."

Is there any professor or class that significantly shaped your experience at the Ed School?

I want to name so many influential professors and staff, but Professor Matt Miller personifies HGSE for me. As the co-creator of How People Learn (aka EDUCATION 1.0), he embraced a myriad of ed-tech options and boldly set the intellectual stage for my educational journey by laying out the critical components of this discipline, many of which have reverberated through each class. However, the first time we met was in a virtual healing circle while unpacking the racial unrest we experienced over Summer 2020. I was moved when he showed up, laid his power at the door and expressed genuine vulnerability and solidarity. Now, whenever we connect, we start with a laugh and then launch into nonstop intellectual banter which always leaves me smiling and feeling a bit more enlightened.

My partner in intellectual crime and my biggest cheerleader, would be [Director of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging] Tracie Jones. She showed me the power of history and how it can be effectively used to shape the present. Through laughs and tears we worked diligently as change agents to realize the unique opportunities HGSE/Harvard, a proud vestige of history, has to offer.

What are your post-HGSE plans?

Our 2020–21 book of the year was The 60-Year Curriculum and as living proof of this doctrine, I know there isn’t one job or a single career path that will define me. However, I do know my personal Theory of Action is to “Ensure all students have equal access to an education that works for (not against) them by advocating for student self-empowerment and blocking systemic negativity.” Through this experience, I have developed the knowledge and wisdom I need to clearly identify the people and systems that align with my personal values and mission. So, as I continue to move through the world as a managing director, board member, donor and influencer, I will do so with confidence, and fidelity, as I stay focused on my goals.

What is something that you learned this year that you will take with you throughout your career in education? 

Education is messy! Yet, I am unapologetically drawn to this sector. I don’t believe there will be one savior in the education space, but rather, it will take a concerted effort of strong willed folx to bring awareness to inequities and who have the intellectual curiosity and drive to find solutions to address them. So Dear Dewey, Mann, and Bronfenbrenner, I’ve developed my own professional framework to guide me as I toil in this space. I’ve dubbed it Termite JusticeTM. Termite Justice is a series of intersecting actions that require many professional education pioneers, sitting at every table across organizations and institutions, to be consistently gnawing at different points of the education structure in an effort to bring down faulty systems in order to make space for us to rebuild in ways that serve all children equitably.

How has the pandemic shifted your views of education? 

I realized, when push comes to shove, humans are much more resilient than we are given credit for. From this experience, I hope more students around the world will soon have increased access to high quality educational opportunities. These same children, I hope, will also be able to design their learning journey in ways that align with their unique superpowers to ensure their success. However, the stress of isolation is traumatic, and I underestimated how much children and young adults need to physically be in each other’s presence. Although technology is ever present, we must not let it become omnipotent. We are humans and need each other to survive, so creating connections is a pop-up skill we all must strive to master.