Mia Tuan, a distinguished scholar who has worked to strengthen equity and inclusion in educational settings, will officially assume the deanship of the University of Washington College of Education on July 1.
Dr. Tuan joins UW after serving as a professor of education studies at the University of Oregon. During her 18 years at UO, she held a number of leadership roles, including interim dean of its College of Education, associate dean of its Graduate School, and director of the Center on Diversity & Community.
In an interview, Dr. Tuan discusses why she was drawn to UW College of Education, her background as a 1.5 generation American, the importance of equity in Washington schools and more.
What about the UW College of Education sparked your interest?
I’ve been active in advancing equity and inclusion in education for years and have worked with many people and organizations who say we should pay attention to these issues but very few who say we must attend to these issues. UW’s College of Education is a place guided by a sense of “must" rather than “should.” In a nutshell, this is what drew me to this College. The values that define this college mirror my own.
I’m also drawn to the College’s spirit of possibility thinking, of thinking outside of the box. "What if we could do this? What if we could eliminate barriers and ensure a quality education for all kids? What if we could make school a place where ALL students feel they belong?” Being part of a community with a “what if” culture is very exciting and speaks deeply to me.
You've described yourself as a 1.5 generation American. Tell us a bit about your background and how that has shaped your path as a scholar.
Sociologists like to coin catchy phrases like 1.5 generation to describe groups of people with shared experiences. Being a member of the 1.5 generation simply means being somewhere between the 1st generation who are immigrants and the 2nd generation who are native-born. 1.5'ers were born in one country but spent their formative childhoods somewhere else. In my case, I was born in Taiwan and migrated to the U.S. when I was 3 years old, which means that all of my memories are U.S.-based, like a member of the 2nd generation, but I am technically an immigrant. The term 1.5 generation captures the experiences of someone like me whose cultural, linguistic and practical experiences are a hybrid of their country of origin and the country where they were raised. As an adult I appreciate the insights I've gained from being raised between two worlds but as a kid growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area it was hard to see beyond the costs.
The overarching theme that binds both my scholarship and applied work is the concept of belonging — what fosters as well as hinders a sense of belonging. There is no question that my personal experiences as a 1.5'er, racial minority and woman have led me to care deeply about this concept. I know what it feels like to question whether I belong and the effects such questioning has had on my confidence and sense of possibility. I am committed to helping others, but especially kids, know that they matter and belong.
Your academic background is in sociology. How does that background inform your thinking about education?
As a qualitative sociologist I focus on how individuals who share a common identity or characteristic experience some aspect of life. So in the case of K-12 education, my interest naturally goes to how different types of kids (i.e., immigrants, girls, LGBTQ, from a single-parent family, etc.) experience schools. But I also pay keen attention to systemic and structural factors and how they impact those individual-level experiences. We aren’t just individuals — we are members of groups, some voluntary and some not, and our membership in these groups informs our individual-level experiences. Concepts like stratification, inequality and privilege inform how I look at the world. Who has power and who doesn’t? Who is present and who is missing? Who is the norm and who is the outsider?
Having a sociological perspective means that I think about education from both a personal and structural perspective — how students experience the classroom, school culture, teachers, peers, etc., as well as the bigger context of how factors like class, race or gender impact the educational experiences of students and their families.
Why is it imperative for our state to establish an equitable education system?
It’s not good enough to successfully educate only a subsection of students, those with the means to do well or who fit within some narrow definition of the norm. We must effectively educate all students so they can reach their full, creative potential.
I should add that the work of advancing equity isn’t just a moral imperative but also one based on what’s good for the state of Washington. If we want students graduating from this state to be the leading problem solvers, innovators and change agents of the future, we have to attend to issues of equity. Advancing equity is about ensuring diversity — of thought, life experiences and approaches to the thorny, big questions of the day.
There's a tremendous focus on improving education in our community and the state of Washington right now. How will the College lead that change?
While I’m new to this community and to Washington state, I believe people look to this College for informed and thoughtful opinions, research that matters, and for best practices to increase access, reduce inequality and foster belonging for all Washington students. And they should! We are a nationally ranked, top 10 college of education with equity at our core and a community committed to bridging research, practice and policy.
I see this College as a national leader for culturally-informed problem solving, authentic community partnerships and A to Z approaches to systemic change.
What will be some of your first priorities?
My first priority will be getting to know the people who make this College tick — faculty, staff and students. Part of my job as dean is to be the chief advocate and storyteller of the College. To do my job well means taking the time to get to know people, find out what matters to them, and to deeply understand the impact of their work — how they make a difference in the lives of kids, families and communities.
A close second will be building on the sense of “what if” that already exists here. I’m excited to meet with faculty, academic leadership and College of Education supporters to explore possibilities about the future to advance the mission and goals of the College!
Dustin Wunderlich, Director for Marketing and Communications