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Doctoral students aim to create positive change through education and social policy

Back when he was a fledgling pharmacist, John Oluwadero learned all about the power of medicine to help people. Later in life, as a youth advocate in Nigeria, he saw how well-crafted government policies could also be powerful prescriptions for curing the social ills that surrounded him.

He would also see how these costly social programs sometimes fell short, despite their best intentions.

Today, as the 35-year-old works toward his doctoral degree at the University of Delaware, he understands that both prescription pills and prescriptive policies demand more than good intentions — both must be rigorously researched to ensure they help more than they hurt.

That’s the mission and the passion of Oluwadero and the other students in the Graduate College’s interdisciplinary education and social policy doctoral program. They are learning to become sentries of a sort, guarding against misguided and wasteful policies by asking tough research questions: Just how effective are early intervention programs? Are charter schools really delivering better outcomes? Do “safety net” social programs truly help people escape poverty?

Oluwadero and his classmates have found an ideal time and place to plunge into such turbulent sociopolitical issues. Few other U.S. universities even offer doctoral degrees in education and social policy, according to Jason Hustedt, an associate professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Sciences, College of Education and Human Development, who lends his expertise in early childhood policy and practice to the doctoral program.

At UD, the doctoral students say they can count on receiving a uniquely supportive mix of mentorship, research experience and cross-discipline expertise.

“I think it creates its own synergy,” Hustedt said of the program’s interdisciplinary approach. “The advantage is that it gives a pathway for people to follow, a chance to do a variety of different things and a flexibility to encompass different areas with their studies.”

Oluwadero agrees. “It was a perfect fit for what I have interest in,” said Oluwadero, now in his second year of studies. “I’ve really been able to acquire new competencies in research and policy analysis. It has also shown me some of the limits of passion in making policy.”

For fourth-year doctoral student Hojung Lee, it was a chance to work with a top professor in a field she has long been passionate about, educational inequality. “We can jump right into the specific research area we’re interested in,” said doctoral student Hojung Lee. “That’s very important, and it gives us great experience.”

Born to collaborate

The program emerged in 2022 as a collaboration between two prominent scholarly entities at UD — the College of Education and Human Development (CEHD) and the Joseph R. Biden, Jr. School of Public Policy and Administration. Nationally recognized professors from CEHD and the Biden School give the program its interdisciplinary edge, and the curriculum has been expressly designed to let students select the policy areas that interest them most: social policy, human development and family sciences, early childhood, K-12 education, or higher education.

Quickly, they find themselves immersed in real research, investigating real cases that affect real constituencies. Many also take advantage of teaching opportunities, and all are taught how to engage effectively with “real-world” policymakers and other stakeholders. Throughout, the program stresses close and supportive relationships between students and their faculty advisors.

The result is graduates who are flexible, confident and skilled at cutting-edge research techniques, making them ideal candidates for faculty positions or jobs at research centers, government agencies, schools and nonprofits. In recent years, demand for skilled researchers has grown.

“There has been an increasing emphasis in having research evidence inform decision making in education and social policy,” said associate program director Sarah Bruch, associate professor in the Biden School and the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice. “This has expanded the range of opportunities for those with research training and substantive expertise in these policy areas to make significant contributions.”

Many students who pursue a policy research career had already been motivated by a strong sense of social justice, but once they earn their doctorate, they will be equipped to become agents of actual positive change, through conducting rigorous, high-quality research to identify, improve and shape policies that work.

That’s the goal of doctoral student Lee, who came to UD from South Korea specifically to work with Ken Shores, an assistant professor in the School of Education specializing in education policy. Lee knew she wanted to work toward better outcomes in education ever since her days as an undergraduate, when she tutored disadvantaged students who had been practically discarded by the system.

School officials warned her then that two of the students she tutored were probably lost causes, and that she should just make sure they stayed out of trouble. But Lee had other ideas.

“It was heartbreaking, hearing how these students had been marked as failures,” she said. “They were low income and low achieving, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have potential. That’s just not true.”

Working closely with the boys over the next two years, she helped lead them to a place where they felt confident — and valued. Soon, their performance surpassed the naysayers’ expectations, and Lee vowed to continue pushing back against misguided attitudes and policies.

“Many of the people who are studying educational inequality have some sort of belief that their research can contribute to the learning of disadvantaged students,” she said. One of the boys she taught is now a middle school English teacher; the other is in law school.

“I have kept in touch with those boys for 11 years. I have observed their whole journey, and I saw how a small intervention — having a tutor — can make a huge difference in someone’s life, especially when they are young,” she said. “I changed their lives, but they also changed my life because I found that this type of intervention can be meaningful.”

Ready to make a difference

Now in her fourth year of study, Lee has already had her research suggesting improvements to federal funding programs published in prominent academic journals.

“Having that opportunity is really great for students,” Lee said. “Publishing in a good academic journal while we’re still in the program can be a really great signal to the job market.”

And Oluwadero is already aiming to put his expertise into action when he returns to Nigeria, where he has worked for years to create opportunities for disadvantaged youths through the nonprofit he founded, the Building Nations Initiative.

“Our students graduate ready to analyze any program or policy that is focused on supporting people in social or educational systems, early childhood to adults,” said program director Laura Desimone, the L. Sandra and Bruce L. Hammonds Professor in Teacher Education and director of research in the College of Education and Human Development.

“The program has strong candidates from a variety of fields, including science, economics, business, education and other social sciences,” Desimone said. “A master’s degree is not required for acceptance.”

“Our students are well-trained in rigorous methodology to examine what people are experiencing, and determining what works — and what doesn’t,” Desimone said.

To learn more about UD’s interdisciplinary education and social policy doctoral program, visit udel.edu/grad/ed-social-policy.


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Article by Eric Ruth. Photo by Eric Tommer.