Michigan has hundreds of acronyms, and one of our favorites at Rackham is SROP. The Summer Research Opportunity Program is a program for undergraduates from diverse backgrounds to come to U-M for intensive research and an introduction to graduate school. Natalie knows SROP well, having participated as a sophomore from Columbia University. She remembers, “I really didn’t fully understand the significance of the program when I applied. It made logistical sense for me to come home to Detroit that summer and have something productive to do, but it was so much more than I expected. I came here and gained a deeper understanding of what it means to do research and pursue an advanced degree. It was eye-opening. I had all of these experiences seeing people of color, black women who were like me and doing work in my city. I thought this could be a place where I had a lot of resources and a network that would be supportive of me.” SROP began a connection that led Natalie to graduate school at U-M.
With a background in psychology and premed, Natalie’s academic trajectory had a winding path in undergrad. “I wanted to feel more connected to people and community, I wanted to make my learning matter. And then, I realized I had a passion for being an educator. It was like a click or a spark happened; I knew I loved science and loved learning things, and when I thought about how to take what I felt and knew back to my community, education made a lot of sense to me. I recognized the power that comes from intense study and applied knowledge. And, I wanted to pay forward a lot of blessings and opportunities that were available to me but weren’t necessarily there for people who sat next to me where I’m from.”
Natalie taught upper elementary in an African centered school in Chicago after completing her undergraduate degree. She reflected, “I got such a joy from the act of teaching – the energy of interacting with people, asking questions, being perceptive and gauging students. I had social justice priorities in what I did- it was about using what I was doing in the classroom to make our world better, beginning first with my students. I was thinking deeply about structure, curriculum, and community, empowering children through education, and transforming the traditional school environment to make space for new possibilities. I had successes and failures. There were also many questions left unanswered.“
So Natalie came home. “For undergrad I knew I wanted to leave the state, but I didn’t feel the same way for grad school. Actually, it was the opposite: I knew U-M could be a great fit, and I could be close to my family and didn’t have to navigate a completely new city. Michigan became the obvious choice and it worked out so well. I didn’t feel like I had to compromise my academic goals because we have this great, well-resourced university here,” she explains.
Natalie is now immersed in data collection for her dissertation. She’s undertaken volunteer obligations in schools where she’s doing her research, making time to support teachers in ways that aren’t directly related to her research. She says, “It is a humbling experience to do work in your hometown. My background as an educator in schools allows me to be an extra person who has the content knowledge and background to help and not detract from the classroom agenda. They are giving me a lot by allowing me access in these spaces. Being a volunteer and part of the school community and carrying my weight is important to me. I want people to know me and trust me. They want me to be successful in my research, and it makes for better data because I have such positive relationships with the people I’m collaborating with. There is something to be said about engaging people in this collective work and supporting each other to make things better. It bridges that gap between the academy and what’s happening on the ground, the real struggles and successes.”
Natalie’s research focuses on equity in education. She examines what it means to provide a high quality education for Black students and facilitate discourse around preparing kids to engage with systemic and social issues. She describes, “We need to do all these things; it is not enough to teach basic math. We have to attend to students’ social, emotional and political development. We need to teach students to engage with the problems in our society. In high poverty areas, the narrative of getting a college degree and living the dream doesn’t typically match reality. The social structure is not designed that way. You get into disproportionate issues, and we need to rethink the role of the school in the midst of all of that. I’m interested in learning about what it would take to nurture students as leaders, as change agents – the ones to stand up, solve problems, and confront issues. I’m focused on schools who are interested in doing that.”
She continues, “There are so many questions to examine: ‘How are young people thinking about opportunities, constraints and possibilities? How do kids develop a sense of their own social positioning? What is the role of the school in shaping the perceptions of children? ’”
In her research now, she notes, “Teaching 3rd grade transformed my perception of what it means to be a little person. The kind of deep thinking and critical analyses that people assume isn’t happening at that age really struck me. I’m impressed by their warmth and intellectual interest, by how they’re developing the foundation for the work they’ll do as adolescents and adults. They are coming into their own, trying to make sense of the messages they receive about who they are and what they can do in this world. Children are thinking about complex ideas and social issues, though the language they use is different. My task as a researcher is to listen and learn from them.”
Natalie’s been home in many respects since she came back to Michigan: “Grad school been a really good experience overall. So much of it is learning as you go. I’m becoming a lot more comfortable with that. It is an empowering and humbling experience to be here around so many brilliant people who are experts in things I want to be an expert in – and have that be sort of the norm. It is wonderful to be surrounded by people who understand what you want to do. Everyone doesn’t have that, and I’m grateful to be a graduate student here. I’ve got a team in my corner who will advocate for me. It takes off a lot of the pressure when you know you are an important piece of the puzzle and people are there for you. You can just worry about the work.”
“The people, faculty and staff, are so caring and compassionate here. Thanks to the availability of financial resources, there are so many things I don’t have to worry about. I don’t’ have to think so small, I can find financial support to bring a vision into fruition. I don’t feel I have to limit myself in terms of my scholarly application. I can go outside a narrow trajectory and branch out, and there will be support for me here. I don’t think I realized how good a fit this institution would ultimately be for me. The only challenges I have are related to the tall task of getting a Ph.D., and I would have faced them anywhere.”
This extends to her fellow graduate students as well: “They make space for you, make you feel your work is valuable. That makes me feel a sense of responsibility when mentoring other grad students; I try to help to create that kind of space for them. So they flourish. I feel like it is extremely important to take mentorship and friendship very seriously and to make sure people feel that you notice their progress, know where they are, and that they have someone that will extend a hand when they need help.”
Natalie serves on the RMF advisory council, an experience that gives her a sense of what makes a university a great place for students from diverse backgrounds. “I also got a better understanding of program planning, alternative career paths, and navigating the whole institution. It has been an empowering leadership experience.”