Reflecting on Two Years of Education Studies

Two years after the creation of the Education Studies program at Amherst, Contributing Writer Guilherme Santos ’24 reflects on how the program has built community and opportunities for engaging in the study of education.

Reflecting on Two Years of Education Studies
Professor of Economics Joshua Hyman teaching students in Education and Inequality in the United States. Photo courtesy of Amherst College.

Although a recent addition to the college, the education studies major has already built a dynamic community of students and offers academic and career activities for both majors and non-majors. Now on the horizon for the program are expansion, consolidating resources for students and alumni, and further impact on the community outside of the college.

Two years into the program’s creation, The Student explores how it has allowed countless Amherst students to engage with educational studies and think more critically about the role of education in the world we live in. “In these three years I have been at Amherst, deciding to become an Ed Studies Major was one of the decisions I am most happy about,” Ariana Rodriguez ’24 said.

The Creation of the Education Studies Program:

The education studies program’s story goes back much further than the two years it has officially existed. Professors across the college had been incorporating education studies topics into their courses for years before the program was named.

One of the earliest courses related to education at Amherst was “Reading, Writing and Teaching,” which was designed by Karen Sanchez-Eppler, professor of English and American studies, and three other professors in the English department in 1991. It has been taught ever since.

There were other opportunities outside of official Amherst classes, too. Students who were particularly interested in teaching could (and still can) obtain an educator’s license through the Mount Holyoke teacher licensure program. All these opportunities naturally cultivated interest among Amherst students in establishing a program at the school devoted to the role of education in our society.

The Careers in Education Professions Program at the Loeb Center, led by Robert Siudzinski, also had a great impact on the emergence of the major. This program was created with the support of the Lewis-Sebring Foundation, and is composed of several initiatives that aim to help students explore education-focused careers. The program also helps students learn from their peers’ experiences in education-related internships, fellowships, research, and coursework.

In an interview with The Student, Siudzinski also highlighted the importance of the Ed Pro Fellowship in the creation of the education studies program. The fellowship, founded in 2013, allows different students who are interested in education to learn with each other, and to learn through experiential opportunities and mentorship in the education field.

Around 2013, students from the career programs started to advocate to the administration for the creation of an education-focused academic department and pitched the idea to former President Biddy Martin and Provost and Dean of Faculty Catherine Epstein in 2014. In 2017, the Lewis-Sebring Foundation provided funding to Amherst for a visiting professor of education studies, Leah Gordon. Gordon, together with Sanchez-Eppler, Siudzinski, Professor of Black Studies and History Hilary Moss, and other faculty members, started to assemble an official proposal for the education studies program.

In speaking with Visiting Professor of Education Studies Kristen Luschen, I was able to hear a bit about the process of writing a proposal for a new program and getting it approved. She explained that, because of her experience with pioneering the Critical Studies of Childhood, Youth, and Learning Program at Hampshire College, she was recruited to help initiate the education studies program at Amherst, joining in the work that was already ongoing at the college. Luschen described the proposal as the result of a lengthy process of collaboration between the education studies professors and Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) staff, who formulated a full proposal that was then reviewed by the Committee for Educational Policy, and eventually, in its final version, was brought to the full faculty for voting. In October 2020, the program was finally approved by the committee, and began to officially accept majors in Fall 2021.

Building a Program

After the program was officially created, students and faculty immediately began engaging in its activities. In the first year of the program, there were already nine students majoring in the field, and many more taking education studies courses. The classes were taught by professors from economics, American studies, sociology, Spanish, philosophy, Black studies and even other departments. The core class offered in education studies is “Purpose and Politics of Education,” taught by Moss and Luschen, joined by inter-departmental classes like “Developmental Psychology” (with Psychology) and BIPOC Children: Targets of the State (with American Studies).

Professor of Philosophy Jyl Gentzler, the first chair of the education studies program emphasized that, since its inception, the education studies program has permeated all areas of study at Amherst.

The first reason for this, Gentzler said, is structural in that education studies is a program and not a department. Because its professors are all associated with different departments, it draws together many disparate parts of Amherst’s academics. The other is more abstract: Insofar as we are at an educational institution, we will all benefit from reflecting on the role of education in our lives and our society, Gentzler said. The program fosters this type of thinking.

Gentzler teaching Ancient Greek Philosophy. Photo courtesy of Amherst College.

According to Luschen, the excitement of the program also stemmed from it being one where professors, staff, and students could all work together to make it what best fulfilled their needs. Luschen and many others who spoke to The Student highlighted the involved and passionate staff of the program who, ever since the proposal writing process, were a major contribution to the program’s community. Some great examples of this staff involvement being Siudzinski’s contributions to the major through the Careers in Education Program, and the CTL’s contribution on building the proposal.

Two of the most remarkable programs that Siudzinski described to me were made possible by the contributions of dedicated staff and faculty. One example is Education Treks, which provides J-term opportunities to visit schools, universities, think tanks, enrichment programs, education-tech firms, museum education departments, and to talk to the alumni who work there. Another program is the aforementioned Ed Pros Fellowship, which is still going strong. In the fellowship, students often share their lived experiences with very diverse education-related internships, as well as discuss the nature of ed research they’re conducting with faculty or the CTL. This space gives the possibility for students to think of paths that they had not even considered before, and can cause them to completely change their minds by just hearing other people’s experiences.

The Loeb Center helps organize Education Treks. Photo courtesy of Amherst College.

Education studies majors that I spoke to lauded the program’s  great classes and professors, and the interdisciplinarity of the program which allows them to approach different aspects of education. Margo Pedersen ’25, education studies and sociology double major, mentioned how essential the program’s professors have been during her time at the college.

One moment she highlighted was when she had just started to gain interest in the major. At that point, on the recommendation of Siudzinski,  she had a conversation with Luschen, who encouraged her to pursue the major. She decided to take “Purpose and Politics of Education” with Luschen. Her experience in the class made her decide to continue in the education studies major. Currently, she is one of the student representatives for the Education Studies Program and is part of the e-board of the education studies club.

Rodriguez, also a student representative for the education studies program, described her love for the current education studies class options. However, she mentioned a desire for more classes with an international perspective, be it through comparative analysis of educational policy, or just analysis of international perspective on education (a topic that some professors, such as Moss who is currently doing research on neighborhood schools and zoning in New Zealand, are already profoundly engaged with). She also hopes that the program will have increasingly more classes that feature education as their sole focus, instead of classes that are cross-listed, but are not necessarily centered on education studies.

Students and faculty alike share hope for the future of the program, and have plans to grow the  community by adding more professors, students, and thesis writers. The process to hire a new professor for the program is currently underway. This professor will be based in another academic department but will be primarily focused on contributing to the education studies program.

In addition to that, both the students and professors mentioned that they hope to become better connected to the local Amherst community, and beyond through both their courses and programming. This already happens in some classes, such as “Reading, Writing and Teaching,” which takes students into local adult teaching centers to give its students’ teaching experiences.  Faculty also mentioned hopes to build deeper connections between current education studies students and alumni with careers in education.

Although recent, the education studies program is an amazing opportunity for students of all majors to learn how to think more critically about education in general, and about the role of education in their own lives. By taking classes, getting involved with the Education Studies Club, or joining extracurricular activities such as the ed pros program, students can engage with relevant topics on education, whether they are of  the major or not. As time passes, the program continues to change and grow, increasing its impact on the college community, in students’ lives, and in how Amherst graduates will contribute to society.