While Vassar has offered courses on education since 1898 and a teacher certification program since the 1960s, education as a major is new this fall. Following approval from the New York State Department of Education this summer, the Education Department now offers a concentration in educational studies for students who wish to pursue the study of education from a philosophical, theoretical, cultural, or psychological/cognitive point of view.
As before, students who are interested in pursuing a career in teaching at the elementary or secondary levels choose a liberal arts concentration in the field they wish to teach and complete the requirements for initial certification in New York State. But students who are not necessarily interested in teaching can now study education from a multidisciplinary perspective, investigating the complex political, economic, cultural, and social forces that shape educational systems.
According to Chris Bjork, head of the Education Department and a scholar in comparative education, the decision to develop a concentration in educational studies came in response to student requests. In 2008, the department initiated a correlate in educational studies that offered students two options, a focus on human development and learning or a focus on educational policy and practice. “The first year, 26 students declared correlates, and it has steadily increased every year,” says Bjork. “Last year, about 100 students took the introductory level course.”
In response to this increase in interest, the department began adding teaching staff with expertise in different subfields, such as race and gender, and peace and conflict. “We gradually built our capacity so that we are now ready to offer a rigorous theoretical foundation in the discipline,” says Bjork. “Especially in light of the ongoing public debate about our educational system, it just seemed to make sense to offer students the opportunity to delve deeply and critically into education as a scholarly discipline.”
Anna Schlosser ’14, from River Vale, NJ, will be one of the first Vassar students to graduate with a bachelor’s in educational studies. Previously a women’s studies major with a correlate in educational studies, Schlosser says she felt a little conflicted about switching. “I didn’t want to just jump ship on the Women’s Studies Program because I love women’s studies too, but I think I’ve finally landed where I need to be,” she says. “I feel thankful and excited about finishing strong in a department where I feel at home.”
Schlosser spent a summer working at the U.S. Department of Education, where she learned that she wasn’t as interested in policy making as she had thought; a semester in Chile with the School for International Training working on a comparative education project; and a summer as a counselor at the Girls Leadership Institute (cofounded by Vassar alumna Rachel Simmons). She’s applying for City Year in New York City for next year, and after that? “I have a lot of dreams,” she says, “a lot of dreams, and not a lot of plans. I do want to get certified and I see myself going to grad school eventually. I’m interested in how curriculum is structured around gender differences. Do boys and girls learn differently? Are we socially conditioning our children to `learn like a boy,’ or to `learn like a girl’? And I’m really interested in working with girls, specifically. My summer at the Girls Leadership Institute taught me that there are a lot of ways to be involved in education and to be a youth advocate without necessarily standing in front of a class.”
The Education Department offers multiple hands-on experiences for students interested in either the practice of teaching or the theoretical study of education. The Vassar College Urban Education Initiative is the umbrella group for Poughkeepsie-area programs. These include mentoring programs—Exploring College and Let’s Get Ready—that match Vassar students with area high school students to foster college readiness; tutoring programs—Vassar After School Tutoring (VAST) and Vassar English Language Learner Outreach Program (VELLOP); and Exploring Science at Vassar Farm, where Vassar students and faculty design and implement lessons for local elementary school students at the farm.
The department also offers three junior year study-away opportunities. Two of these have been in place for many years--the program in Clifden, Ireland, a one-semester internship for students interested in cross-cultural education, teacher certification, or education theory, and the Urban (NYC) Education Fellowship , also a one-semester program, where students take classes at Bank Street College while interning in New York City public schools.
A comparatively new program is the internship at the Cloud Forest School in Monteverde, Costa Rica. This unique independent school with a student body of 200 pre-schoolers through 12th graders aims “to graduate bilingual individuals with strong roots in environmentalism. Armed with the tools to take on today’s complex problems, our graduates will become tomorrow’s botanists, farmers, lawyers, veterinarians, biologists, and environmental justice warriors!” Vassar interns observe in the classroom, design and implement lessons, study Spanish, and carry out an independent research project.
Cara Chaudron ’14, a psychology major from Honolulu, HI, interned with the math and science middle school teacher at the Cloud Forest School last year. “I thought I might want to be a teacher, but I wasn’t sure,” says Chaudron. “That semester was my eye-opening teaching-is-what-I-want-to-do moment.”
Chaudron was one of the few people on staff who were completely bilingual, so she got to take on additional responsibilities, such as translating at parent-teacher conferences. And the teacher she was interning with had a family emergency and had to return to the States for a week, so she had the opportunity to really experience what it’s like to be the teacher. “Every day had such a sense of purpose,” she says. “I would get to school early because a particular kid was counting on me, or I would stay up late working on an assignment because 56 middle schoolers would suffer if I didn’t.” As a result of her experience, Chaudron plans to pursue a master’s and certification when she graduates from Vassar.
“These are exactly the kinds of outcomes we are excited about,” says Bjork. “It’s not just that we want to produce teachers who are passionate about their work, although of course we do. It’s that we want to create multiple pathways for our students to explore the issues that interest them in depth and with a clearer sense of purpose. We think this new major expands our capacity to do that and will add intellectual vitality to the department.”
--Julia Van Develder
Photo courtesy of Cara Chaudron ‘14