Profile: Alex Serna, IRT ’10

Master’s, Education; University of California, Los Angeles
Executive Director for Breakthrough San Juan Capistrano

photoThe ivory white dice bounced off the classroom wall. “Snake eyes!” I exclaimed as I won another quarter. It was 3rd period Geometry and my friend and I were enveloped in a game of dice while our teacher was talking about theorems in the background. I graduated high school with a 2.1 GPA. I never took the SAT. I never thought I’d ever graduate college. Frankly, I didn’t care. While both my parents, who emigrated from Mexico had high aspirations for my future, I thought college was a waste of time, partly because I thought I wasn’t capable of graduating. Six months from finishing high school I met my now wife and eight months later we found out we were going to be parents. We were both 17. Thirteen years later, Shalee and I have four daughters and I’m now the Executive Director for a college access, education nonprofit tasked with supporting students from backgrounds in underrepresented backgrounds starting in middle school become the first in their families to graduate college. An ironic outcome for someone whose college aspirations at one time were absent. During those internment years, I underwent a defying transformation and my summer at Andover as an intern with IRT dramatically shaped my pathway to graduate college, attain a master’s degree and lead an education nonprofit in the fight for educational equity.

The cool bay area breeze combed my hair as I walked to check the mailbox. We’d been in Berkeley for eight months finishing my junior year, the prospects of post-graduation looming in my mind. We were 21 years old, a family of five with two 1 year old twins and a 3 year old toddler and no idea what the next few years would entail. Shalee and I were the first in our families to attend college, getting to a 4-year university was challenging in itself, so graduate school was an even more elusive and unknown next step. During my undergraduate studies, I came to realize that I wanted to dedicate my life to education, more specifically I aspired to support other students like myself who struggled in school. I turned the mailbox key, discarded the ads and one envelope caught my attention. I could feel my stomach sink, warmth fill my face and my hands tremble holding a letter addressed by Phillips Academy Andover; the moment I realized I was accepted as a summer intern was the moment that I knew my eventual journey as an educator was solidified.

Sitting on the grass by Samuel Philips Hall, the humid summer air enveloping me as I was enveloped in one of our assigned readings preparing for the next day of seminar. The reader looking back at me like Mt. Everest ready to be climbed, the dread I felt thinking it wasn’t possible that I could get through this program in less than a month; but I did, and many had before and since. Besides, the lack of sleep, overwhelming feeling that never went away, thinking that I was chosen by mistake and would be discovered soon, a sense that this experience was all a dream and holding onto the idea that it was all for some future reason. My summer as an IRT intern dragged me outside of my sense of self, forcing me to realize that I belonged- that I was capable. I belonged in graduate school, I was capable of being a college graduate. I belonged in spaces of edification, I was capable of critical inquiry. I belonged and I was capable.

Alex Serna is an Executive Director for Breakthrough San Juan Capistrano, an education nonprofit with the mission to support students become the first in their families to graduate college. He has B.A in American Studies from UC Berkeley and a master’s degree in education from UCLA. He’s a 2017 New Leaders Council, Los Angeles fellow currently serving on the Millennial Commission on Education as a Senior Fellow. His thoughts on college access have been published in the Washington Post, The Hill, The Hechinger Report, Diverse Issues in Higher Education, NACAC Journal of College Admissions and the New Leader Journal of Generational Policy and Politics. 

Profile: Rolando Herts, IRT ’94, ’00

Director of The Delta Center for Culture and Learning at Delta State University
Executive Director of the Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area

headshotFinding Place and Authentic Life Purpose Through IRT

When people ask me where I am from, I tell them that I am not from anywhere in particular; that I am a placeless spirit traveling a serpentine path. Thankfully, IRT has guided my traveling spirit to places where it has been able to serve authentically and purposefully.

I wrote about place-seeking in “Sacred Ground, Traveling Light: Personal Reflections of University-Community Tourism Engagement,” which won the Best Treatise prize in IRT’s Impressions, Ruminations, Treatises: Essays on Intersectionality, Praxis, and the Educational Arena. The essay details how the serendipitous discovery of a historic black cemetery inspired meditations on my Rutgers doctoral research journey:

There are places where travelers go to renew their spirits, travelers like me who have stories and lessons of transformation to share. . . . we are fighting to tell the stories of spirits that came before us, stories that live on in places hidden and places found. At Lamington Black Cemetery, I found a reflection of my traveling spirit and the work that it must continue to do to give voice to communities that historically have not been heard. (pp. 65-66)

I did not realize, however, that “Sacred Ground” would transport me to the Mississippi Delta, a culturally rich yet economically impoverished region where heritage-based community empowerment is essential.

I owe much of who and where I am today to IRT. Indeed, IRT amplified my authentic life purpose through Impressions, Ruminations, Treatises. When “Sacred Ground” received the prize, I shared the news with mentors from Morehouse, The University of Chicago, and Rutgers. In addition to extending congratulations, external dissertation committee member, Dr. Luther Brown, confided that he was retiring from The Delta Center for Culture and Learning at Delta State University, an historically white institution in the Mississippi Delta that is now among the state’s most diverse.

The Delta Center is an interdisciplinary center of excellence that promotes greater understanding of the Mississippi Delta’s internationally significant cultural heritage contributions, including music, foodways, literature, and civil rights icons like Emmett Till and Fannie Lou Hamer. The Delta Center fulfills this mission through university-community tourism engagement, including the Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area with the National Park Service and the National Endowment for the Humanities “Most Southern Place on Earth” Institute.

Then came the ultimate surprise: Dr. Brown encouraged me to apply for his job based on my dissertation research and “Sacred Ground.” Months later, I departed Rutgers to become the director of The Delta Center and executive director of the Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area.

By leading The Delta Center, I am fulfilling the authentic life purpose articulated in “Sacred Ground.” For example, we created the Delta Jewels Oral History Partnership with Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Alysia Burton Steele. This cultural heritage interpretation project has engaged over 1,000 residents and visitors in honoring unsung African American church mothers from the Mississippi Delta who lived through the Jim Crow Era and the Civil Rights Movement. Delta State and the Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area received National Park Service Centennial Awards for collaboratively implementing this project with regional, statewide, and national partners, like the Smithsonian.

During a recent Delta Regional Authority leadership program at Harvard, my traveling spirit was compelled to visit IRT. Though Kelly Wise is retired and Asabe Poloma is at Brown, their passion for and commitment to IRT’s mission remain intact. This was clear interacting with Kate Slater, who graciously welcomed me back to the source that has connected so many of us to communities where we are fulfilling our authentic life purposes. Congratulations, IRT, for continuing to renew traveling spirits that empower voices in places where we serve.

Profile: Kirkland La Rue, IRT ’04

M.A.T. Child Development, Tufts University
Senior Kindergarten Gradehead, The Francis W. Parker School, Chicago, IL

photoDear IRT,

I don’t know if you have done the math, but I have.

This June marks our thirteenth anniversary. We never married, and we’ve never been much for ceremony for the sake of tradition. Yet, I was curious about what the traditional gifts might be. I was really hoping for paper. I still have my summer intern packets. They’re well worn now. The highlighter and pencil marks have faded a bit, but I fell in love with you over those bound pages, so paper would have been appropriate. Alas, the interwebs report that it’s lace for the thirteenth go around the sun. So instead, I’ve decided to write you a love letter.

When we met, you were the more experienced, the wiser half of our relationship. You knew more about the world. You knew yourself and were set in your mission. Quite simply: you wanted to change the world, making it a better, more equitable place for all students. You were passionate about changing the systems and structures that made it difficult for folks of color to enter the pipeline to the academy. And it was that mission, and your commitment to it, that caught my attention.

I, on the other hand, was still finding myself. I was young and naive: Neo before the red pill. Still, you saw something in me. You introduced me to your inner circle. Some of the folks had big names like Morrison and Dewey. Some were names that I grew to love like Freire and Anzaldúa. Then there were the fellow students who had fallen in love with you in earlier years, just as I had. Their work, in sum total, turned on switches and lights and bells inside of me that I hadn’t realized I possessed. In those sticky weeks of June and July, I realized just how much I shared many of your same missions and passions.

Since then, I’ve become a kindergarten teacher. In part, because I believe that the seeds of the conversations that we had in Andover have their antecedents in the circle time discussions of the five-year-old classroom. In working with young children, I get to turn on the switches, lights, and bells of equity and justice early. Knowing that there are many ways to walk through the world is a universal truth that everyone should learn early. The tools of combating injustice are forged while we are still young and primed to speak unfiltered about unfairness.

Somewhere along the way, I realized that I had more to offer than just my skills in the classroom. Maybe it was always there. Maybe it was all those times back when you pushed me to accept my place as a critical thinker and as a facilitator, I don’t know. But I began to seek out opportunities that allowed me to broaden my equity work. I coordinated professional development workshops for teachers to talk about their own racialized experiences and how those experiences influence their teaching. I participated in a school-wide study that examined the experience of its Black male students. I led a committee tasked with pushing overarching, school-wide diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts.

Today, in addition to my responsibilities in the classroom, I wear a number of different hats. I am a Lower School Diversity Coordinator at my current school home. I lead a monthly seminar for parents whose drive is to create positive school change through conversations about equity and diversity. I also have the privilege of sitting on the faculty of a leadership conference that brings together nearly 2,000 high school students from across the nation each winter.

The writer Alice Walker once spoke about the empowering act of decolonizing one’s spirit, the process by which we unpack and ultimately reject dominant narratives, rediscovering and reclaiming those parts of ourselves once written off as “unnatural”. You, IRT, are in the habit of holding up the mirror for students, bringing into focus all the beauty that has been drawn out of focus, telling us that we belong.

You gave me a gift of paper that summer thirteen years ago, IRT. I’ve been writing my own story on it ever since. In return, I hope you accept this gift of lace in the form of a love letter.

Profile: Amber Wiley, IRT ’02

Formerly an Assistant Professor, Department of American Studies
Skidmore College

photoThis spring I concluded my first year teaching American studies at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York.  Prior to teaching at Skidmore I spent a year as the inaugural H. Allen Brooks Traveling Fellow with the Society of Architectural Historians, traveling to Mexico, Guatemala, Ghana, Ethiopia, India, and Vietnam. Additionally, I taught in the architecture and historic preservation programs at the Tulane School of Architecture in New Orleans, Louisiana. This spring marks the five-year anniversary of defending my dissertation and completing my doctorate at the George Washington University.

I count my experience as “five years out” because that is what it feels like.  Though each leg of the journey has been extremely unique – Tulane, travel fellowship, then Skidmore – the past five years have been a constant ride of self-discovery, both personally and professionally. In that way, the years blend together. I have, in a sense, embarked on another journey, much different from the doctoral journey. As a junior faculty member and emerging scholar, this time is critical to navigating who I am as an academic.

Thinking back to my experiences with IRT, I realize how much the guidance that I received while applying to doctoral programs was central to my understanding of the inner workings of academia. IRT pushed me to ask critical questions of myself and my field – moving beyond the surface response of “I really like architecture, I want to keep studying it.” Through my application process with IRT I was able to discern what aspects of design were most important to me, which departments were engaging in those topics, and which scholars were at the forefront of the issues that continue to have an impact on my research and teaching.

This level of discernment can be difficult when one has an interdisciplinary interest in a field that is limited depending on the department in which it is located. To be more specific, I wanted to continue my research in architectural history. This topic can be landed in architecture, art history, history, urban studies, American studies, or geography departments, as well as public history or historic preservation programs. As such, one of the challenges becomes speaking the language of that department or program, while staying true to your own research interests. The counseling that IRT provided helped me navigate those types of issues. I leaned on my IRT experience when I decided to switch academic institutions while in pursuit of my doctoral degree.

To be sure, five years out from graduating with my doctorate I am still very much aware of the joys and challenges of working in an interdisciplinary field. Some of the same questions I asked of myself way back as an IRT associate reemerged when I looked to publish my first article – “Do I fit within the American studies discourse, or art history? Is my work more history than architecture? Should I look for an African American historical journal or historic preservation publication?” I have found a happy midpoint in much of the work that I do. My first publication, “The Dunbar High School Dilemma: Architecture, Power, and African American Cultural Heritage,” was published in Buildings & Landscapes: Journal of the Vernacular Architecture Forum. That article was recognized by the Vernacular Architecture Forum with the Catherine W. Bishir Prize, awarded annually to the scholarly article from a juried North American publication that has made the most significant contribution to the study of vernacular architecture and cultural landscapes. Publishing the article, and receiving the prize was a confirmation – I have found my people! Finding my people, however, was a journey that started in the fall of 2002 as an IRT associate, a process that asked me from the beginning – who I was a scholar, whose work had an impact on my intellectual development, who did I want to be – when I did not even know that for myself.

Update: Amber is currently an Assistant Professor of Art History at Rutgers University as of September 2018. 

Profile: Christopher Vick, IRT ’03

Master’s, Simmons College: PhD, Boston College
Formerly the Coordinator of the African-American Latino Scholars Program (AALSP) at Brookline High School
Founding Academic Affairs Director, College Track

Photo by Matthew Cavanaugh

For the past 13 years, it has been my honor and joy to serve as the Coordinator of the African-American Latino Scholars Program (AALSP) at Brookline High School. The AALSP provides academic acceleration and cultural enrichment to high achieving students of color at BHS. It has created a robust college-going and academically driven culture amongst Black and Latino pupils. As the leader of this program, I have been privileged to watch it grow exponentially. The AALSP started 15 years ago as a monthly affinity group offering 20 students a chance to talk about their experiences as students of color attending a majority white school. With time, I have been able to facilitate and manage the evolution of the program into what it is now, a comprehensive wrap-around experience which includes daily grade level seminars and provides a plethora of scholastic supports to over 110 young people. In developing and delivering the curriculum for the Scholars Program, I focus on a simple and central narrative. The history of people of color in America is rich with examples of intellectual giants who have been compelled to overcome in order to achieve. Thus, students come to see that they too have the ability to reach lofty intellectual heights if they work together and give their best effort. Data shows the program has been successful in helping students internalize that message. As a result of the Scholars Program, BHS has dramatically increased the number of students of color it enrolls in AP courses, the National Honors Society and the nation’s most selective colleges. It is work that I am incredibly proud of and know that I have IRT to thank for it.

Growing up in Baltimore City, I had been blessed to have wonderful teachers that shared my ethnic background and were deeply invested in my success.  This continued at Morehouse where I was fortunate to again have many teachers of color that challenged me to grow as a thinker and professional.  For this reason, my career path was obvious.  I was certain that I wanted to provide for young people, particularly of color, the opportunities that I had been privileged to enjoy. Though I was certain I wanted to teach, I had no idea how to traverse the grad school application process, much less how to select or finance a master’s degree program. For this reason, I am more than thankful for the recruiter that introduced me to IRT as a college junior in 2002 and encouraged me to apply. I was fortunate to be selected as an associate. This opportunity would set me on the trajectory to my doctorate and the opportunity to do the work I enjoy now.

As a 2003 associate with the Institute for Recruitment of Teachers, I was expertly guided through the maze of the grad school application process.  The IRT helped me greatly in writing my statement of purpose, preparing for the GRE and ultimately selecting Simmons College as my best match.  Participating in recruiter’s weekend was a particularly memorable experience. Interfacing with representatives from a host of great colleges as well as other members of the IRT community was invigorating. That weekend and the IRT experience as a whole empowered me and let me know that I could access tremendous support on my journey to graduate school and eventually the classroom.

I continue to be appreciative of my IRT experience. My master’s degree from Simmons and doctorate from Boston College were enabled by the program’s guidance and support. In my professional role, I consistently endeavor to pay forward the many benefits I received. As leader of the African-American Latino Scholars Program, I am able to work towards institutional equity and help mold the next generation of intellectual giants. It is complex, exciting and ultimately rewarding work. It is work that is made even more enriching as I enter a season in my professional life where I see my former students finishing college and starting careers in education on their own. Without fail, I always push every young person I work with to pursue an IRT experience. I have been overjoyed to see a number of them taking advantage of the program and using IRT’s assistance to pursue advanced degrees. I know IRT will be transformative for them in the same way it was for me.

Update: Vick is now a founding Academic Affairs Director with College Track as of 2018.