Doctoral graduates are champions of educational equity

Three of the graduates receiving the SF State doctorate in educational leadership at this year's Commencement are returning to their communities, armed with new ways to help at-risk students achieve at the highest levels. With the program's focus on social justice in mind, they spent an intense three years studying ways to improve educational equity for African American and Latino students.

Noting his own struggles through high school and college, Macheo Payne wanted to know why some teachers were more successful than others at keeping African American boys in school. Blanca Arteaga remembered the positive influence of one of her own counselors, and decided to find out how counselors could better serve first-generation Latino college students. Julissa Mendoza saw that the children of mobile migrant workers were being overlooked in their classrooms, and asked them what factors hindered or helped their success in school.

The SF State educational leadership doctorate program was established in 2007, and its first cohort graduated in 2010. Like many who pursue the degree, Arteaga, Mendoza and Payne were drawn to the SF State program's emphasis on educational practice as well as research. Mendoza praised the SF State instructors, whom she said were "real people making real changes in education around the state."

Preparing teachers to be "courageous"

"I almost didn’t get here," said Payne. "In high school, I didn’t walk the stage at graduation because of incomplete credits." But he said he "beat the odds as a black male from Oakland."

Photo of doctoral student Macheo Payne

Macheo Payne, whose doctoral research explored how to keep African American boys in school.

He eventually graduated from University of California, Berkeley and rose to become director of Oakland Freedom Schools, a summer literacy program, and training director at Oakland's Lincoln Child Center. He also serves as an adjunct faculty member in the master's of social work program at California State University, East Bay.

A friend of his encouraged him to seek the doctorate as a way to share his own ideas and experience, gleaned from many years of hard work with black youth in the Bay Area. For his dissertation, Payne chose to explore the problem of African American boys and school suspensions. "Two out of three black males are suspended at least once in their school careers," he explained, noting that the suspensions increase the likelihood of later arrest and incarceration.

Teachers who work hard to keep these students in the classroom have a few things in common, Payne discovered. They "courageously" take responsibility for all their students' learning, he said, as well as provide emotional support and reflect on their own teaching and discipline methods.

Payne is using the results of his research to develop a training package and consultancy for local schools, helping them to work with African American male students. "Equity does not mean equal," he said. "We have to provide different resources for disadvantaged students to allow them to succeed."

Speaking out for migrant families

Mendoza also drew from her own experiences as she pursued her degree. The daughter of immigrant farm workers, as a child she moved with the lettuce harvests between California and Arizona. She is the first in her immediate family to go to college, after her parents repeatedly emphasized the importance of education. She credits them with some of her desire to obtain a doctorate.

Photo of doctoral student Julissa Mendoza

Julissa Mendoza, who studied high school students from mobile migrant worker families.

"I wanted to prepare myself, as a payback to my parents for their many sacrifices," she said. "In order to make something happen, I knew I had to go the furthest I could go in my education."

For her doctoral dissertation, she interviewed high school students from mobile migrant worker families, who moved between Arizona and California for the garlic and chile harvests. "Teachers and counselors often don't understand why the students move, and may have the perception that the students aren’t college-bound," she said. But Mendoza found that many of the students had college ambitions, and were driven to succeed.

Mendoza has been a middle school counselor for the Gilroy Unified School District for seven years, and she feels that her degree will help her raise awareness about mobile migrant students and the challenges they face. "This particular group of students that I work with, and that I come from, are often forgotten."

Serving the needs of Latino students

Arteaga also works as a counselor, working with students in the Educational Opportunity Program at Gilroy's Gavilan College. Her background as a first-generation Latino college student from a low-income, single-parent home has helped her work with the program's educationally disadvantaged students.

Photo of doctoral student Blanca Arteaga

Blanca Arteaga, whose doctoral research looked at how counselors can better serve first-generation Latino college students.

She was lucky enough to have a positive experience with counseling during her own days as a student at Gavilan. "I realized after that I could really have an impact on a person’s academic and personal life by being a counselor," she said. "I love my job. I love the contact with the students and being able to help them with anything they need."

Her dissertation examined first-generation, low-income, Latino students' perspectives of community college counseling services, a topic for which there is limited research. The best counselors are supportive in ways that go beyond academic advice, and keep the students informed about resources on and off campus, she found. More bilingual counselors are urgently needed, and students prefer to keep one counselor through their college experience.

It was a demanding three years, the doctoral students agreed, but they know that the benefits of their degree will resonate beyond graduation. "When you are able to help the most in need," Arteaga said, "you have the ability to help anyone else."

--University Communications