Emory Report
April 27, 2009
Volume 61, Number 29


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April 27
, 2009
A decade of excellence for Educational Studies

By Ann Hardie

Four years ago, Michelle Purdy could have chosen Harvard or a number of top-tier universities to get her Ph.D. in educational studies. She chose Emory.

The money was a definite plus. With a grant from the Spencer Foundation, Emory’s Division of Educational Studies (DES) offered to fully fund Purdy’s doctoral work in the history of education, focusing specifically on African American education and desegregation. The division also covered travel to national conferences and summer programs to mentor doctoral students in effective strategies for getting their research published.

Then, too, was the division’s obvious commitment to other African American and female students. In the past decade, 23 DES students of color completed their Ph.D.s, accounting for almost half of all the graduates in the doctoral program. Most of the graduates are women.

“In a nutshell, it has been amazing and wonderful to have other women of color going through this journey and process with me,” says Purdy, on track to graduate in May 2010.

DES has been on its own noteworthy journey since receiving the 10-year research-training grant in 1999 from the Spencer Foundation, dedicated to improving education through first-class research. The $1 million over the life of the grant has put the division’s relatively small doctoral program of 30 students on the national map.

It has transformed the program that once heavily relied on part-time students drawn locally to one that now competes against the biggest colleges of education for the country’s top scholars.

“We really are recognized nationally as a doctoral program that puts out high quality graduates,” says DES director Bob Jensen.

“The grant also gave us the opportunity to provide mentorship in many of the aspects of doctoral work that are important in getting recognized.”

A recent letter from the Spencer Foundation’s program director applauded the division’s use of the money, saying innovations in program, curriculum and recruitment “significantly advanced a dynamic research culture.” It also noted: “Proportionately, Emory is one of the leading producers of education faculty of color.”
Vanessa Siddle Walker, Winship Distinguished Research Professor in educational studies, called that a “very big deal” for both DES and Emory.

“I am quite certain that right now there is no institution in the country that beats us in terms of admitting women and students of color, graduating them in the five years and having them move on to productive careers, many of them in Research I institutions,” Walker says. “When Emory speaks glowingly about its record graduating students of color, a large part of that record owes its genesis to DES.”

Now that the Spencer grant has run its course — it expired in December 2008 — DES is trying to figure out how to pivot next. The division is seeking new grants for its focus on teaching in the urban South. But money is tight and DES has only nine professors — down three from this time last year.

“It is not a time to sit on our laurels, to say that was nice,” Jensen says. “We are trying to envision where we go next.”

As for Purdy, she is trying to contemplate a future after Emory. “I think I have been given the tools and the resources and the training and the friendships to navigate any terrain that I decide to go into.”

Earlier this month, Purdy was selected for a $25,000 Spencer Dissertation Fellowship for her work on the desegregation of elite private schools from the 1950s to the 1970s. The Spencer Foundation chose only 20 students among approximately 600 who applied nationally for the fellowships.

“It’s a great honor. I am humbled by it. But the work continues,” said Purdy, who credited DES in particular, and Emory at large, for their support.