In our recurring 10 Questions series, the Neag School catches up with students, alumni, faculty, and others throughout the year to offer a glimpse into their Neag School experience and their current career, research, or community activities.
Learning, Leadership, and Education Policy (LLEP) is a doctoral program available through the Neag School’s Department of Educational Leadership, offering concentrations in three areas: adult learning; leadership and education policy; and sport management. This installment of “10 Questions” connects with two current Ph.D. candidates in the LLEP program:
Shannon Holder of Hartford, Conn., is currently a doctoral student in the Neag School’s LLEP program with a concentration in leadership and education policy. She also is co-host of an education-focused podcast titled EduCulture. She completed her bachelor’s degree in history and master’s degree in teaching at Hampton University in Hampton, Va.
Jesse Mala ’14 MS, a native of New Britain, Conn., and a veteran of the U.S. Army, earned his bachelor’s degree in physical education from Central Connecticut State University and his master’s in exercise science from UConn. His concentration in the LLEP doctoral program is sport management.
Where did your interest in your particular LLEP concentration originate, and how did you come to realize that you wanted to pursue a Ph.D. — and, ultimately, a career — in that field?
SH: I was a teacher for eight years, and I wanted to impact educational policy. I knew UConn had the leadership and education policy concentration, so I decided to apply. As a teacher, I felt that there were always new policies being implemented that didn’t seem like a match for the students I taught every day. It felt like no one was listening to teachers, and teachers were also being blamed for the problems in schools. Teachers around me were frustrated, and I wanted to do something to help them. At UConn, I’m constantly thinking about my former coworkers and reflecting on the frustration that they expressed to me. I also think about the past students I had and how I could change what they experienced in the classroom.
JM: I took a graduate course called sport-based youth development with [Professor Jennifer] McGarry, and throughout the whole course, the content just resonated with me. One aspect of the course examined how sport can be used as a tool to teach life skills among youth in poverty, which was basically my life experience. I enjoyed and believed in the concepts so much, I knew I had to get into this field.
How have your current and/or past experiences led you to where you are now?
SH: In the back of my mind, I always thought I could pursue a doctorate, but it took me a while to make the decision to leave the classroom. I was raised in Hartford, Conn., by my mother, a middle school music teacher in Hartford Public Schools. She instilled in me at an early age that education was extremely important. As a single mother, she made sure I was exposed to opportunities through school and my community; her master’s and bachelor’s degrees were from Howard University and New York University, and she was committed to making sure that I had similar opportunities to pursue my passions. I’ve always known that education was an American right, but as I moved through school, I also recognized that the quality of education was not the same for everyone.
When I was going into third grade, my mother transferred me to parochial school from my neighborhood public school. This early experience made me see the disparities in education at a very young age. I knew I was behind other students because I had to stay after school to practice skills my peers had learned in second grade. I also knew that my mom was paying tuition for me to attend my new school — a burden for her. This inspired me to pursue education and create a more equitable system where it doesn’t matter where you live or whether your parents can afford to send you to another school to get an excellent education.
JM: I grew up in the projects in New Britain, and for the first 15 years of my life lived in poverty. Yet in the midst of poverty, I found an outlet in sport. Participating in youth sports taught me basic life lessons and gave me the opportunity to practice these life skills. I feel like the foundations of perseverance, discipline, and resilience were laid while I was playing youth sports. These skills have helped me throughout my military and academic career. So when I found out there was a field of study that actually examines experiences of young persons in poverty playing sports and the benefits and skills that are transferred to other domains, I realized that this is what I wanted to study.
“I have learned a great deal about school leaders: both the challenges they face, and efforts to support them to make the changes we need.”
— Shannon Holder, LLEP Ph.D. Candidate
What is the focus of your dissertation research? What about this particular topic interests you?
SH: I’m currently working on my qualifying paper, which is a qualitative study of high school teachers that examines how they made sense of a detracking reform. I will continue studying detracking for my dissertation. I would like to do a case study of multiple schools that are detracked and study how it has impacted teachers, students, and the school community.
JM: My dissertation is examining the relationship of sport and physical activity participation on cognitive development and stress regulation among youth in poverty. I hope to grant insight into the cognitive and physiological benefits of sport and physical activity among youth in poverty, hopefully making a case that sport and physical activity can act as a buffer to the negative effects of stress on the brain. This topic interests me because this basically examines my experiences as a child who grew up in poverty and participated in sports and physical activity. I will be defending my dissertation in the late spring of 2018.
What are your future career goals? How do you envision your Ph.D. in LLEP helping you to meet those goals?
SH: After graduating, I want to be a professor at a research institution. The LLEP faculty have helped develop my research and writing skills. Jennie Weiner, [assistant professor and] my advisor, has exposed me to many opportunities so that I am prepared for the professorship.
JM: I would like to be a professor at a research university, where I would be able to do more research along my research interests. The classes, faculty and specifically my advisor in the LLEP program have helped me tremendously with training me how to think write and have provided me with the tools to be a successful scholar in my field.
What have you found most valuable about your experience in the Neag School’s LLEP doctoral program?
SH: I have learned more about how we are more segregated than we were in the 1960s. Even in areas where there is desegregation, racialized tracking within schools maintains the segregation status quo, perhaps more covertly. I have also learned a great deal about school leaders: both the challenges they face, and efforts to support them to make the changes we need.
JM: My most valuable experience would be learning how to be a scholar with my advisor, and the relationships built with my fellow Ph.D. students.
“I feel like the foundations of perseverance, discipline, and resilience were laid while I was playing youth sports. … When I found out there was a field of study that actually examines experiences of young persons in poverty playing sports and the benefits and skills that are transferred to other domains, I realized that this is what I wanted to study.”
— Jesse Mala, LLEP Ph.D. Candidate
How has your perspective changed over the course of your time in the LLEP doctoral program, or what important lessons have you learned?
SH: I left the classroom with a very narrow view of policy research. I have a better understanding of how policy is made and then implemented in schools.
JM: I feel like each class helped me expand my knowledge as a scholar and pushed me to practice different skills as a future scholar. A very important lesson that I’ve learned is that all social/biological phenomena is so complex. A simple explanation to a complex issue just reveals a limited understanding of the phenomena of interest. My work as a scholar addresses a very small piece of very complex issue.
How would you define an effective leader?
JM: An effective leader is one who cares, empowers, and is a living example of the principles they teach.
Who has been your greatest mentor? What kind of support or insight have they provided to you along the way?
SH: Jennie Weiner my advisor has been my best mentor. She has been the greatest support and motivator to me at the University of Connecticut. As my advisor, she makes sure that I’m on track with my coursework and I’m developing as a scholar. She frequently treats me as an equal and pushes me to apply for opportunities at UConn and beyond. This past year she helped me apply for a grant and a leadership opportunity and I received both. If I had not had Jennie’s support, neither of these opportunities would have occurred.
What is one thing that most people perhaps don’t know about you, but that you believe gives you a unique or valuable perspective?
SH: I love futuristic science fiction books and movies. I think my love of sci-fi helps me to always have in the back of my mind that innovation and change are possible even though the world can feel overwhelming and negative sometimes.
JM: Upon meeting me, you probably wouldn’t guess that I spent the first 15 years of my life in urban poverty. I believe this experience gives me a valuable perspective as a scholar who is examining issues among youth in poverty.
Why did you choose the Neag School for your doctoral program?
SH: Wherever you go in the U.S., children of color lag behind their peers in most academic areas and access to a quality education. Of course, creating access to quality education for urban students is a thorny problem that eludes simple, quick solutions. And the current emphasis on fast results does not encourage the kind of deep-rooted reform our schools and communities need. In fact, it is reinforcing historical trends, and children of color suffer and are receiving an inferior education. I’ve seen this firsthand as Hartford students are grade levels behind their suburban peers. UConn was doing research on these inequalities, which is why I wanted to be a student here.
JM: My advisor, Jennifer McGarry, studies sport-based youth development, which is my passion.
What advice would you give to those who may be interested in pursuing a Ph.D. through the Neag School’s LLEP doctoral program?
SH: It’s a great program, and it’s good to brainstorm some topics you would be interested in studying prior to starting the program. Education is a large field, so it’s a good idea to know what you would like to focus on.
JM: If you have the opportunity, do it! Talking to other doctoral students on campus and from other universities, I believe that my experience here at UConn in the LLEP doctoral program is very special and unique. I have felt so supported by my advisor both academically and personally to be the scholar and person that I envision myself to be. Also, experiencing this program with such a racially and experientially diverse group of students has been awesome. When I graduate this spring, I will miss my Neag School LLEP family.
Learn more about the LLEP program at llep.education.uconn.edu. Read other installments of the Neag School’s 10 Questions series.