Growing up in a school system that lacked adequate resources to serve its students, most from low-income households and students of color, Lana Huizar saw several former classmates enter the school-to-prison pipeline or settle for jobs that could not support a family.
“I just wanted to be able to go into a field that could work to improve the lives of the people that I grew up with and what I consider my family, my friends and my neighborhood,” said Huizar, a former sergeant in the United States Marine Corps.
In the military, she said, the enlisted ranks disproportionately come from disadvantaged and minority communities that lack opportunities to access higher education in comparison to officers, who must have a college degree. As a result, officers are in charge of leading people “who they have no idea what their lived experience [growing] up has been like,” while enlisted ranks are often placed in dangerous jobs that might lead to psychological trauma or death.
“This is why I care about education,” said Huizar, now a doctoral student in the University of Washington College of Education’s School Psychology Program. “It’s because I have my brothers and sisters who are hurting, and they don’t get a chance to do more.”
For instance, she pointed out that the National Association for School Psychology reports approximately 88 percent of school psychologists to be white. Yet, 77 percent of students served under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act are students of color or are two or more races.
“While this homogenous group of school psychologists is doing the best that they can, research shows minority students perform better across academics, attendance and discipline when they feel represented in schools,” Huizar said. “If you think about the most vulnerable populations, when they are faced with a system who has oppressed them for centuries, they are not likely to feel that they have a voice at the table.”
At the UW’s School Psychology Clinic, Huizar strives to elevate the role that families play in supporting the academic and socio-emotional development of kids. “It’s more important than what I have to say,” she explained. “They know their child best. I want families to know that their voice matters.”
Meanwhile, Huizar's doctoral research examines the links between education and social-emotional well-being for students. This includes “thinking about how we can hold high standards for our system in terms of providing an adequate education for students," she said, "at the same time, realizing that, if a student’s not being met in one area, we cannot expect them to succeed in another.”
In addition to her doctoral studies, Huizar is helping make system-level changes in education as a UW Community Partner Fellow with Washington STEM, a statewide nonprofit organization that focuses on research, partnerships and advocacy work to ensure all kids, regardless of skin color, income or gender, have access to the education and opportunities that will help them thrive in family-sustaining wage careers in Washington state.
Now entering the second year of her fellowship, Huizar serves as a data scientist for Washington STEM and conducts research to support its various initiatives.
She recently contributed to a white paper for the organization, “Myths, Misinformation, and Upward Movement: Why Higher Education Matters,” that argues in support of preparing students to pursue postsecondary pathways and dispels misleading information about higher education.
“[B]eing at Washington STEM has just made me take a step back and realize it’s not a secluded system,” Huizar said. “You don’t have education and business and economics and policy in their own lanes. It’s all interconnected.”
For example, along with advocating for policy change, Washington STEM uses insights from research such as its STEM by the Numbers report to incentivize business and educational leaders to invest in education and local talent. Huizar has helped prepare the annual report, which identifies systemic access gaps that prevent students from accessing in-demand credential programs and family-sustaining jobs as well as offering solutions.
Huizar and her colleagues visited state legislators in Olympia to present their report in support of Career Connect Washington — a coalition focused on helping young people gain access to high-demand, high-wage jobs.
Seeing a senator’s astonishment after learning that community organizations, such as Washington STEM, have difficulty accessing certain statewide data that would help track student access and outcomes, Huizar developed a greater appreciation for public engagement.
Just because someone is in a position of power, she said, “it doesn’t mean that they are knowledgeable in all areas. We need people to be involved in our policy system so that we can provide that information to them.”
Considering direct service providers – who do good and hard work to serve individual kids and families, Huizar said — it is also important to address the root of the problem. There needs to be “people who know what’s happening” to ensure the system does better to serve students.
While continuing to learn and grow at Washington STEM, Huizar can see her work there enriched by her work in the school psychology program.
“I’m able to think about these system-level changes, but at the same time, not forget the students. Sometimes, we’re thinking about the numbers — and we’re thinking about really big numbers — but because I work with students almost every day, at the end of the day, I’m still thinking about that kiddo,” said Huizar. Working with data, “there’s like thousands of kiddos we’re talking about, but to me, I’m still thinking about the kiddo I served that morning. I’m like, how is this going to affect that student?”
Story by Tracy Dinh, marketing and communications student aide.
Dustin Wunderlich, Director of Marketing and Communications