As a teacher at a high-poverty high school in Brooklyn, Julia Duncheon all-too-often saw her school’s top students go on to college yet encounter roadblocks that kept them from completing their degrees.
Those stories prompted Duncheon to begin her research into postsecondary access, readiness and completion with a focus on underserved student populations. At the secondary level, Duncheon explores how high schools prepare students who are low-income, of color and first generation for college success. At the postsecondary level, she examines how colleges and universities address the needs of historically underrepresented students.
Duncheon joins the University of Washington College of Education faculty this fall as an assistant professor in educational foundations, leadership and policy and Nielsen Scholar. She previously served as an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Texas at El Paso and earned her PhD at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education.
In the following Q&A, Duncheon discusses an experience in high school that inspired her to pursue a career in education, her research agenda and more.
What drew you to education?
As a high school student growing up in the Bay Area in California, I participated in a civil rights education program called Sojourn to the Past. The program takes high school juniors and seniors on tours through the Deep South to meet leaders and foot soldiers of the civil rights movement. By immersing students in history, the program aims to motivate and empower young people to challenge injustice in our society today.
I attended as a junior and then returned as a senior to student-teach, where I had the opportunity to deliver lectures at various points along the journey. It was through this experience that I really fell in love with education in general and social justice teaching in particular as vehicles for social change.
Describe your research agenda. What makes this work meaningful to you?
My work explores policies and practices pertaining to high school-to-college transition, with a focus on the experiences of underrepresented student populations. Drawing on sociological frameworks and qualitative methods, I examine the role of students’ social, political and institutional contexts in shaping postsecondary opportunity and equity. I am also interested in understanding how preparation for and exposure to higher education can promote student empowerment and democracy.
I became interested in this research area while teaching history and government in a high-poverty, low-performing high school in Brooklyn, N.Y. There, I witnessed too many of our top, highly motivated students graduate and attend college, only to face immense obstacles and often leave before obtaining a degree. At a time when enhancing postsecondary completion has become a priority for state and national policymakers, it is incumbent upon K-12 schools and postsecondary institutions to ensure students from historically marginalized backgrounds have real opportunities to succeed.
What attracted you to UW College of Education?
So many reasons! I’ll just name a few. One is that its programs are nationally renowned. Faculty are continually working on program improvement so that future teachers and administrators are prepared to create more equitable schools, and I wanted to be part of that effort. In addition, I appreciate the focus of the College on equity and social justice. I also look forward to working with colleagues who are highly engaged in research that not only advances scholarly discourse, but also makes a positive impact on educational practice locally and nationally.
What's a course you're particularly excited to teach?
I was trained as a sociologist of education, so I am excited to have the opportunity here to design a Sociology of Education course for the spring. Sociology offers a host of valuable tools and frameworks for understanding educational problems, and I look forward to engaging with graduate students around these issues.
Tell us about an education-related book or movie that has influenced you.
Jean Anyon’s “Ghetto Schooling” and Angela Valenzuela’s “Subtractive Schooling” are two texts that have greatly informed my work as a scholar and professor. Both highlight so eloquently the ways in which politics, power and oppression commingle to disrupt educational opportunity. I also appreciate Valenzuela’s work in particular as an exemplar of rigorous qualitative research.
What's something that students and colleagues should know about you?
I recently stumbled across a yearbook from one of my years teaching high school in Brooklyn. A comment from one former student, who went by Rocko, made me laugh. He said, “Ms. D. – You’re a hard-ass teacher, but you’re a cool-ass teacher.” I think my graduate students would say something similar. I am known for setting high expectations and valuing rigor in my classroom, but I also care deeply about my students and provide scaffolds to ensure they can succeed.
Besides your work, what's something that you're passionate about?
Over the past four years, my family lived in El Paso, Texas, and I became active working with local immigration advocates and volunteers to support asylum-seeking families arriving at our southern border. I hope to find ways to support immigration rights locally now that we have relocated to Seattle.
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