Tiffany Marra has always had a heart for social justice. Even as a high school student in an agricultural part of California with a majority Latino population, she noticed a clear disparity in the opportunities available to different students. Some students were able to spend extra time studying or socializing, while others went straight to work after school to support their families. With two military bases nearby, Tiffany saw students come and go without ever having the chance to form relationships or catch up to the curriculum before they were off to their next destination, putting them further behind the older they got. It was then that this future Rackham alum and director of the Center for the Education of Women first noticed the need for social justice.
Tiffany went on to attend the University of California, Irvine for her undergraduate education. On her way to work at the University’s science library, she noticed a graduate fair being held in the middle of campus. Out of curiosity, she pedaled up to a booth covered in maize and blue materials, jotted down her name and contact information, grabbed a packet of U-M materials and carried on with her day. A few days later, Tiffany received a follow-up call from Pat Natale, a recruiter from the School of Education, which turned into a conversation that would eventually lead to a plethora of opportunities and an unexpected career at U-M in academia.
Shortly after their conversation, much consideration, and completing the graduate school application process, she received admission offers from both Harvard and Michigan.
In September of 1997, as one of the newest Rackham Merit Fellows, Tiffany flew to Ann Arbor for the first time as she began her graduate education at the University of Michigan’s School of Education. She quickly developed a passion for combining education and technology to improve the lives of students in minority communities– so quickly in fact, that she completed her two-year program in just nine months.
She then moved back to California to accept a job, where she stayed until she once again received a pivotal phone call from Pat. This time, the call was focused on convincing Tiffany to return to graduate school in pursuit of a Ph.D. Being the type of person to take an opportunity when it comes along, she didn’t need much persuading. Tiffany returned to Michigan, once again, as a Rackham Merit Fellow. Tiffany recognized the need for hands-on experience to enhance her graduate studies and upon returning to Ann Arbor took a leadership role at Daycroft Montessori School, where she integrated technology throughout the curriculum and oversaw the technological infrastructure of the pre-k through sixth grade classrooms. She later took a leave of absence from her studies to accept a high-school teaching position with the Henry Ford Academy in Greenfield Village where she built and tested the 12th grade technology curriculum utilizing principles of academic service learning.
Tiffany returned to the University as an employee in 2001 where she transitioned a for-profit website, SmartGirl.com (donated by Isabel Walcott), to the Institute for Research on Women and Gender. SmartGirl’s purpose was to give girls a safe space to explore online and to encourage and support middle school aged girls to pursue studies and careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields. Under the mentorship of Abigail Stewart and Nancy Songer, Tiffany integrated her work on SmartGirl.org with her dissertation by studying how curriculum can shape student’s perceived value and expectations for success in STEM-related fields.
During her time at IRWG, Tiffany sought career development opportunities through the Women of Color Task Force Annual Conference, through which she made valuable connections. This experience with WCTF was Tiffany’s initial introduction to U-M’s Center for the Education of Women.
After leading the SmartGirl project, Tiffany turned her focus to expanding usage of MPortfolios on the U-M Ann Arbor and Dearborn campuses, an initiative developed by the Office of the Provost and Student Life. Its primary focus was to help students from nontraditional backgrounds tell their stories, connect the dots between their experiences, and create a cohesive narrative for applying to jobs or graduate schools. Through MPortfolio work, Tiffany became embedded on the Dearborn campus, eventually taking a full-time job to lead MPortfolio expansion, and develop and launch the Hub for Teaching and Learning Resources, STEMStart, and Talent Gateway programs. It was at U-M Dearborn that Tiffany developed a keen awareness around the challenges faced by nontraditional students.
Now, Tiffany finds herself celebrating just over a year as the director of the Center for the Education of Women, a position she accepted after working for five years at U-M Dearborn. In this role, she advocates for underrepresented, underserved populations and develops innovative partnerships and programs to support marginalized students, faculty, and staff.
It is through her experiences in her position with CEW that she can confidently recommend that alumni keep the importance of giving back, both financially and professionally, in mind. “The big challenge is to give back financially to students in need when we can, but we also need to be willing to have conversations and to serve as mentors. It’s important to provide outreach and guidance to nontraditional students, including first-generation grad students, students with childcare responsibilities, or students who are minorities in their field, because they may not have anyone else to talk to about how to navigate higher education and enter into the workforce.”
When Tiffany looks back on her own graduate experience in educational technology, she does so through a lens of innovation and exploration. “It was 1997, so computers weren’t big in the classroom yet. We could explore and develop without any real expectations. We felt like we were at the forefront of the field, and we were studying under gods in our field like Carl Berger and Fred Goodman.” She remains connected with her fellow scholars and values the collaboration they shared during their time in the program together.
Tiffany also stresses the importance of utilizing the available resources on campus, including the quiet spaces in Rackham and the funding available to students. “I had the opportunity to present at conferences, so I applied for grants to help me do so. There is also funding available for students in emergency situations. Don’t let financial hurdles get in your way. The money is out there. The first step is finding it.”
To current graduate students, she notes the importance of keeping an open mind. “I knew nothing coming in, and I think that helped. Keep your eye out for opportunities. You have deadlines to meet and dissertations to write, but when you least expect it, something just might present itself.”
Tiffany also notes that she is excited that Rackham has become a family tradition, as her niece, Julia Castellano, earned her B.A. from U-M in April 2017 and has just begun her graduate program here in Health Informatics.