Thursday, April 17, 2014

Reflections on AERA14

Part of the Division J Post-Conference Download series

by Sara Goldrick-Rab, Associate Professor of Educational Policy Studies and Sociology, University of Wisconsin-Madison

When I was a graduate student, I had one goal in mind: to make the world a fairer place. In my estimation, that had little to do with becoming an academic, and so I honestly had no interest or intention of becoming one.  I thought that my doctoral program in Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania would help me gain the skills needed to dissect social problems and figure out how to address them; when finished, I planned to go out and do just that.

But funny things happen on the way to graduation, and despite my active consulting agenda and constant insistence that I only wanted to do applied research, friends and mentors (including my advisor Jerry Jacobs) convinced me to apply for a position at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The job seemed to have “Sara” written all over it, they said, since it was for a sociologist studying higher education policy with strong networks and methodological skills.  I thought, “sure, but I’ll never get it” and applied anyway.  I hadn’t finished a single chapter of my dissertation at the time, but two months later the job in the wonderful Department of Educational Policy Studies was mine, and I spent the spring of 2004 frantically writing up my research in a West Philadelphia coffee shop. Getting that done meant ignoring practically everything else, including my new boyfriend who went on to become my husband just a year later.  Remarkably, people put up with me, cheered me on, and off I went to the Midwest.

Fast-forward ten years, and on April 5 2014, I found myself at AERA standing in front of more than 1,300 people, accepting the Early Career Award.  Me, a professor, honored by an enormous membership organization of talented people devoting their lives to research on important problems? Me—a professor?  I kept thinking, “what the heck happened?” But most of all, I thought “thank you, thank you, thank you.”

For I will never stop being grateful for this vote of confidence in the work I’ve done because this job that I do, I love completely.  I adore my work, I live and breathe and eat my work, and I wake up and go to sleep thinking of my work every single day. It gives me energy, it makes me laugh, it causes tears, and pain, and heartache, and I can’t imagine it ever ending. The luxury of spending my days chipping away at really hard problems, like how to make college affordable for the swarms of Americans who want to experience it, and the chance to dictate the terms of my life without an obvious boss, it’s beyond any blessing I’ve ever imagined receiving.

Standing at that podium made me as nervous as I’d ever been. I shook because I was overcome with how hard everyone had worked to get me here. The words poured out of me—I could hear my grandfather’s voice telling me to “go get ‘em” and my late grandma’s words “keep it short and simple, Sara.”  I could feel my family smiling at me through the camera that streamed the images into my living room at home, where my husband Liam, son Conor (age 7), and daughter Annie (age 4) sat watching.  They put up with me loving my job and love me anyway.  Nearby sat Nancy Kendall, my very best friend in the world who is never afraid to tell me what I least want to hear.  Often, that’s about the importance of ensuring that I fulfill my obligations at home and to myself, and that means turning to Patrice Coffin, who loves my kids and keeps them safe, and Alison Bowman, my associate director and right hand, who lifts burdens from me as often as possible, and turns my dreams into accomplishable tasks.

Then there are those who remind me that being a professor is about far more than sitting in an office waiting for students to arrive, or revising papers to send off to restricted-access journals.  I come to AERA for the people, the people who make me marvel at how big and good the world can be when caring translates into action.  Scott Thomas, Kate Shaw, Carola Suarez-Orozco, Rebecca Maynard, Tammy Kolbe, Adam Gamoran, Eli Lieber, Barbara Schneider, Ellen and Shawn Costello, Robert Kelchen, Lauren Schudde, Rich Shavelson, Minh Mai, and Chris Mazzeo, thanks for being there to celebrate with me.  You, and my students, and the world on Twitter, and most of all the everyday people who walked in and among and around me on the streets of Philadelphia during that trip—the Philadelphia where I turned my eyes towards academia and found myself—you’ve made all of the difference.  My “early” career may have been great, but I can hardly wait for the next part. 

This post is part of our Post-Conference Download series. Over the weeks following the 2014 Annual Meeting, we will feature several reflections on the conference.

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