Five UW–Madison students awarded National Academy of Education/Spencer Foundation Dissertation Fellowships

Five UW–Madison graduate students have received dissertation fellowships from the National Academy of Education (NAEd) and Spencer Foundation.

The competitive NAEd/Spencer Dissertation Fellowship aims to encourage early-career scholars from a range of disciplines to pursue research that can improve education. Competitive applicants are those who bring fresh, constructive perspectives to the practice of education anywhere in the world. In addition to a stipend, the award supports fellows’ professional development through mentoring at retreats led by senior scholars.

This year, 35 fellowships were awarded, including five UW–Madison awardees:

Read more about each Spencer Fellow below.

Yaa Oparebea Ampofo

Yaa Oparebea AmpofoYaa Oparebea Ampofo is a PhD candidate in the Department of Educational Policy Studies and a Planetary Health Scholar at the Global Health Institute and Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. As a student of comparative and international education and with a bachelor’s in Environmental Studies from Yale University, her work sits at the intersection of education decolonization, socio-ecological studies, and sustainable development discourses. On campus, Yaa Oparebea has worked with the School of Education’s Global Engagement Office and International and Comparative Education Research Group (ICERG), as well as the African Studies Program.

Against the backdrop of climate change and environmental degradation across Africa, and as a community-engaged scholar, Yaa Oparebea’s research journey is enhanced by her own hopes and anxieties about the future. Her dissertation, funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation and Zeit Stiftung Bucerius, explores how Ghanaian youth learn about, experience, and make sense of climate change and other socio-ecological disruptions to their routines and livelihoods. This research also examines how different learning frameworks, environments, and pathways attend to human-planetary health and wellbeing, with a focus on examining their capacities to capture the broad public imagination and influence public policy.

To examine these topics, Yaa Oparebea conducted six months of community mappings and institutional ethnography and 12 months of extensive interviews, participant-observations, and focus group discussions with focal youth participants to look at three major themes: first, how core institutions associated with youth education – such as family, schools, religious institutions, and workplaces – socialize young people about crisis, socio-ecological change, and human-planetary wellbeing; second, how youth make sense of and respond to these efforts in relation to their daily experiences; and third, how youth generate knowledges and actions that may offer new hope to their survival and thriving.

“A study of how youth learn across diverse institutionalized spaces offers a critical, interdisciplinary analysis of knowledge production, teaching, and learning, and new ways of understanding sense-making, experience, and action,” Yaa Oparebea said. “This project challenges pervasive colonialist approaches that overdetermine the importance of formal schooling and overlook youth’s agency in knowledge generation. It informs how we might imagine radically different and decolonizing educational pathways to support youth in generating alternative, hopeful livelihoods and futures, for themselves and the planet.”

Yaa Oparebea’s goal is that such research may deepen our understanding of how various crises are shaping and transforming the work of educators, as well as how we create opportunities for new and powerful educational approaches to realizing sustainable human and planetary wellbeing. Her work speaks to how we might reimagine the educational programs, pedagogies, and policies that support African youth as they situate their needs, responsibilities, and future livelihoods in response to the rapid socio-ecological changes that are reshaping life across the continent and the world.

Ariel Borns

Ariel BornsAriel Borns is a PhD candidate in the Department of Educational Policy Studies. Drawing on the interdisciplinary field of comparative and international education and anthropological perspectives in education, Ariel is interested in the ways in which global education policies, such as instructional coaching, are understood and implemented locally by educators.

Ariel’s dissertation research explores the interplay of equity-oriented educational reforms around language and literacy in schools serving multilingual students in Indigenous communities in Guatemala. She has conducted qualitative research on projects affiliated with the Wisconsin Center for Education Research, including one that has examined how literacy coaches adapt to a school district’s K-5 literacy reforms. In other work, Ariel has examined migrant and refugee youth’s experiences of belonging and activism in a community-based organization as they contend with the intersecting challenges of racialized immigration and education policies in the U.S.

Her research has been supported by Foreign Language and Area Studies fellowships, a Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad Fellowship, and the Arvil S. Barr Graduate Fellowship from the UW–Madison School of Education. At UW–Madison, she works with the Qualitative Research Methods Group and International and Comparative Education Research Group. She holds a master’s in Educational Policy Studies from University of Wisconsin–Madison, a master’s in Teaching from Clark University, and a bachelor’s degree in International Development and Social Change and Spanish from Clark University. Prior to her doctoral studies, Ariel was a public school teacher in the U.S.

Ariel’s dissertation examines Guatemala’s national coaching reform, which aims to achieve equity through decentralized efforts to support high-quality instruction as well as linguistically and culturally relevant education for Indigenous populations, who comprise over 50% of the national population.

“Coaching is heralded as solving a host of issues, including weak leadership and ineffective literacy instruction,” Ariel said. “Despite the popularity of coaching reforms for improving teachers’ classroom practices and student reading achievement in the U.S. and in low- and middle-income countries, resources and systems to support such organizational improvements are often lacking, even after successful pilot programs.”

Ariel’s work draws on over 600 hours of observations at public primary schools in Indigenous communities and staff professional development, document analysis, and over 50 interviews with educators and key-informants involved in Guatemala’s coaching system to examine how Indigenous peoples embedded within the state as educational leaders understand, negotiate, and challenge international- and state-driven narratives around language, literacy, quality, and equity. Findings from her research reveal the ways the coaching model sought to improve instruction across three interrelated components of the education system – systemic change, pedagogical improvement, and ethnolinguistic inequality. The findings of this study have the potential to inform efforts to leverage coaching to achieve ethnolinguistic and educational equity in diverse contexts around the globe.

“I hope my research generates insights regarding the potentials, challenges, and unintended effects of educational policies, such as instructional coaching, in ways that promise to improve linguistically and culturally relevant literacy instruction in Guatemala and other low- and middle-income countries,” Ariel said.

Anshu Jain

Anshu JainAnshu Jain is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Educational Policy Studies. His dissertation research, funded by the Graduate Training Program Award (School of Education, UW–Madison) and by the LGBTQ+ Studies Dissertation Fellowship (Center for Research on Gender and Women, UW–Madison), is an ethnographic account of the lives of transgender men in Hindi-speaking regions of India. His work focuses on understanding transmen’s encounters with educational and state bureaucracies; their experiences as students, citizens, and activists; and their efforts to transform social, educational, and bureaucratic logics and practices that govern their lives.

Anshu grew up in a non-metropolitan city in north India, and later spent most of his youth in New Delhi, where he first experienced life as a transgender man. Prior to joining UW–Madison, he obtained a master’s degree in Economics from Delhi School of Economics, University of Delhi and worked in three educational and gender/sexuality rights non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in north India. During the third year of his PhD, he also completed a master’s in Gender and Women’s Studies at UW–Madison. Through his work, he seeks to learn from and contribute to transgender support networks, movements, and politics in India. As a teacher, scholar, activist, and writer, his goal is to work towards expanding educational rights, policies, and practices in India to make them relevant for trans individuals and to write about how trans people in India survive and thrive.

Jonathan Marino

Jonathan MarinoJonathan Marino is a doctoral student in Educational Policy Studies. His research focuses on inequalities in young children’s access to early childhood education, and in the design, implementation and consequences of early childhood education policies in the United States and internationally. At UW–Madison he is also an affiliate researcher in the Center for Research on Early Childhood Education (CRECE) and has been an Institute for Research on Poverty Graduate Fellow. Prior to graduate school, Jonathan served as a service-learning coordinator for the Chicago Public Schools, a policy researcher at the Council of Chief State School Officers, and a U.S. Fulbright Scholar in Uganda where he supported refugee access to education at the Makerere University Refugee Law Project. He also co-founded the Northwestern University Center for Global Engagement, now housed within the Buffet Institute for Global Affairs, and served as its inaugural co-director. He holds bachelor’s degrees in education and political science from Northwestern University and a master’s degree in philosophy from the University of Galway.

Jonathan’s dissertation, funded by Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad (DDRA) and Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) fellowships, explores the spread of large-scale early grade reading interventions across many developing countries in recent years. Focusing on the case of Uganda, Jonathan traces the emergence of new early grade reading curricula, pedagogies, assessments, and teacher trainings that have been rolled out countrywide in the past decade. Utilizing participant observation in four focal primary schools, interviews with teachers and policymakers, analysis of documents, and a teacher survey, Jonathan seeks to understand the frictions that emerge when implementing standardized reading curricula across diverse linguistic and regional contexts.

“My hope for the dissertation is that it improves our understanding of reading and reading pedagogies in highly multilingual settings and offers recommendations to an early grade reading field that is growing at a rapid pace,” Jonathan said. “More generally, as a researcher, practitioner, and advocate, I hope to participate in movements for educational justice that center the concerns of our youngest learners and enhance the working conditions and well-being of their teachers and caregivers.”

Alexandra Pasqualone

Alexandra PasqualoneAlexandra Pasqualone is a PhD Candidate in Educational Policy Studies (EPS) and History. Prior to pursuing her doctoral studies, Alexandra served as a high school history teacher in New Jersey, a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant at Akdeniz University in Turkey, and an AmeriCorps VISTA leading after-school programming in West Philadelphia as part of the University of Pennsylvania’s Netter Center for Community Partnerships. She is a proud alumna of Camden County Community College and earned a teaching certificate and dual bachelor’s in Secondary Education and History from Rowan University, a master’s degree in History from the University of Cincinnati, and a master’s in Educational Policy Studies from the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

During her time at UW, Pasqualone has served as a project assistant (PA) at the Center for Research on College-Workforce Transitions (CCWT) and a teaching and research assistant to several EPS professors. Currently she is supporting research on UW’s history of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) as a PA for the Center for Campus History (CCH). She also co-founded and co-leads the History of Education Graduate Students (HEGS) organization.

Beyond her involvement on campus, Alexandra has spent the last several years studying Southwest Asian and North African (SWANA) regions and languages through coursework, a 2019 Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) in Meknes, Morocco, a Foreign Language Area Studies (FLAS) Fellowship in 2020-2021, and a CLS Refresh course in Spring 2022. Pasqualone has volunteered as co-facilitator of a bilingual course on Palestinian Apartheid through the Yallah Al-Quds Program and will intern this summer with the American-Arab Anti-discrimination Committee (ADC), supporting work related to federal recognition of a Middle East and North Africa (MENA) category.

Alexandra’s dissertation explores the relationship between public schooling and identity formation among youths of Arab descent in Dearborn, Michigan, from 1948 to 2001. This period stretches from the heightened immigration of Southwest Asian and North African (SWANA) populations to the Midwest following the establishment of Israel to the rise in Islamophobia after 9/11.

“Among a highly concentrated community of Arab immigrants, Dearborn’s youth formed diverse understandings of what it meant to be Arab, what it meant to be American of Arab descent, and how to contend with these identities,” Alexandra said. “This intertwined process of identity formation and racial formation was complex as youth of Arab descent simultaneously asserted their own conceptions of their identities and responded to non-Arabs’ often racist and inaccurate perceptions regarding SWANA populations.”

Grounded in archival sources and oral interviews, Alexandra’s dissertation explores the nuances surrounding the identities of Arab populations in the U.S. and complicates current historical understandings of education and its relationship to race, ethnicity, and what it means to be American.

As a researcher, Pasqualone’s interests center around the power of student voice and youth activism, the history of adolescent educational experiences, and the relationship between schools and themes of race, equity, and identity. She hopes her work on Arab American youth will not only bridge the fields of educational history and Arab American studies, but that it will underscore the distinct experiences and identities of youth of Arab descent as they navigated public schools. More broadly, her research and use of oral history aims to apply student-centered approaches to historical research illuminating the importance of youth as historical actors and pointing to history as a valuable tool for approaching contemporary questions regarding the impact of schools on the identities and experiences of the students they serve.