Global Education: Rutgers GSE Faculty Engage the World

October 09, 2017

At the Rutgers Graduate School of Education (GSE), the shared commitment to advancing excellence and equity in education extends well beyond the borders of our local, state, and national communities. Fueled by both personal and professional motivations, many of the GSE’s faculty members have spent years studying and traveling to various nations across the globe to participate in innovative research to advance excellence and equity in education around the world. As active global citizens, the knowledge and experience these GSE professors gain through their international study also contributes to a more holistic understanding of the increasingly diverse United States student population and education system.  Moreover, it allows them to better recognize how education can and has proved to be, a catalyst for social activism. 

GSE Associate Professor, Carrie Lobman is a lifelong activist who believes that play and performance can help create social change. For the last 3 years, Lobman has been working closely with drama therapist and performance activist, Elena Boukouvala in Greece to bring Syrian refugees together with local citizens for play, performance and culture building. Through play, they create new conversations that help them see each other beyond stereotypes. 

“In my experience, traditional approaches to activism haven’t been working all that well. Through play and improvisation, people become more open and less constrained by ideology and can discover creative solutions to real-world problems,” stated Lobman. “It’s a vehicle for social change.”

For the last decade, Lobman has been doing research in collaboration with Brazilian educators who have been working to further grow the public education system so it supports learning and development of children and communities. These colleagues also use play and performance to bring together people from all walks of life and ages to imagine new futures. She also partners with Yuji Moro in Japan, a leading Vygotskian scholar turned community activist who utilizes performance to engage disengaged youth.

Lobman was one of the founders of the Performing the World Conference in 2001, co-sponsored by the All Stars Project and the East Side Institute, to bring together people from around the world who had been using play to as a vehicle for social change. In 2016, the Conference had over 500 attendees from almost 30 countries. Lobman is now working with Boukouvala in Greece to export the conference all over the world in a way that is sensitive to the local cultural context. 

GSE Professor Beth Rubin has been working with counterparts in Guatemala, Poland and Japan to better understand how young people develop as citizens and think about controversial social, cultural, and historic issues, particularly in their social studies classes. Rubin’s interest in global education was sparked by studying and traveling in Mexico and Central America as a teenager and young adult. Later she wanted to examine how schools in Guatemala were being used to create a new civil society after a 36 yearlong civic conflict. Rubin found that the social studies curriculum often did not meaningfully engage students in thinking about the more conflictual aspects of that country’s history. 

She also found parallels in the American education system. The social studies curriculum does not directly grapple with the experiences and historical memories of youth from a range of different communities. That has led to a joint study with Hiroshima University in Japan whereby Rubin and her counterpart will study how educators are prepared to teach controversial social and historical issues at the GSE and in Japan. 

“We are collectively responsible for creating the world that we live in and the first step to creating a civil society is awareness and understanding about the world around us and our history so that you can see beyond just the surface,” stated Rubin. “Some really great curricula has already been developed to engage students meaningfully and thus, educators do not need to invent anything new to do this effectively. Educators have the power to motivate and empower students participate in civic life at the community, national and international levels. We need to ensure that our children leave schools believing that they have a place at the table and something unique to contribute.” 

Her personal background sparked GSE Assistant Professor of Practice Ifeyinwa Onyenekwu’s research interests. She grew up in a Nigerian immigrant household where her parents received their first degree in Nigeria and were pursuing advanced degrees in the United States as international students. They would later become naturalized U.S. citizens. Her father – now retired- spends most of his time in Nigeria. One aspect of Onyenekwu’s research focuses on the experiences of diverse Black populations in higher education. Her first project examined Nigerian collegians racial and ethnic identity development in the U.S.  

Onyenekwu conducted an international research project in Nigeria in 2015-16 and collected questionnaire and interview data that examined the educational and career journey of Nigerian returnees with foreign degrees. She found that many Nigerians return home after earning a degree abroad. Nigerian graduates have created global communities that they utilize to encourage and help facilitate the transition back home. While Nigerians continue to informally build supportive networks across the globe, Onyenekwu suggests host institutions have an opportunity to play a larger role in the career journey of Nigerian returnees. 

“This generation of Nigerian returnees with foreign degrees is different from the baby boomer generation as they have less assistance from the Nigerian government. Baby boomers who were sponsored by the Nigerian government in hopes that they would contribute to developing the country post Nigeria’s Independence from Britain in 1960.  Many signed contracts stating that they would return after receiving degrees from universities overseas,” stated Onyenekwu. “Younger generations of Nigerian returnees see Nigeria as a land with opportunities that advantage those with foreign degrees. To this end, foreign degrees are an asset that suggests exposure to a global community and market. This generation is utilizing their transnational connections to build networks with their host institutions as seen in African Business Conferences that are hosted in many U.S Ivy League institutions. “

For GSE professor, Tanja Sargent, understanding global citizenship and the greater contexts in which our experiences are situated seem to come quite naturally. Sargent’s mother was from Finland and her father from the United States. She was born and raised in Zimbabwe, Southern Africa. Today, however, Sargent’s research explores issues in education reform in China. 

Sargent’s interest in Chinese education began after taking Chinese language classes in college. After graduating she spent 6 years teaching English in China, the first three in Shanxi Province and the latter in Macau.   She later returned to the United States, where she received her Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education.  Sargent says it was her experiences in China that inspired her to study curriculum issues within the context of the Chinese Education Reform for her dissertation. She continued this research when joining the Rutgers Faculty, and has written a number of articles surrounding education inequality, professional learning communities and curriculum reform in China. During this time she has hosted several visiting scholars from China including Professor Yang Xiao from Shanxi Normal University.  Sargent is now a distinguished affiliated professor at Shanxi Normal University as part of the Shanxi Province “100 Experts” Initiative, which again brought her to China to help further the province’s economic and social development.

Sargent says her experiences traveling to and from the United States and China have allowed her to observe both systems of education from a global perspective.  “There are common educational debates in both nations around issues such as student centeredness and relevance vs. examinations and standardization.  We are all talking about similar issues but how they get implemented in practice ends up looking quite different.”  Sargent plans to investigate how curriculum and teaching strategies in both nations are embedded in, and influenced by, cultural, national, economic, and social contexts. 

Although the research goals of these GSE faculty members are quite different, they are unified in the mission to ensure students around the world are receiving the highest quality instruction. Through their  work across the globe, GSE faculty members continue to advance excellence and equity in education here at home and abroad. 

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