This year, Inside IES Research is publishing a series of blogs showcasing a diverse group of IES-funded education researchers and fellows that are making significant contributions to education research, policy, and practice. In recognition of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month we interviewed Dr. June Ahn, associate professor of learning sciences and research-practice partnerships at the UC Irvine School Of Education and PI of the IES-funded Career Pathways for Research in Learning and Education, Analytics and Data Science training program. Here’s what he shared with us on how his background and experiences shaped his career and how his work addresses the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion in education.
How have your background and experiences shaped your scholarship and career?
I am a child of immigrant parents who came to the United States from South Korea. Neither of my parents graduated from higher education but were able to find stable, working-class jobs as postal workers in Rhode Island. These details very much shape the experiences I’ve had and how I think about my work. For example, growing up in an extremely small Korean-American community, not many people outside of the community understood my background and family history. I had to learn to navigate many different social groups with diverse ethnic and cultural histories. As a child of immigrants, I very much understood how education was seen as an important mechanism for social and economic mobility. At the same time, I was keenly aware of how my experiences and realities were often absent or misrepresented in my schooling, the curriculum, and experiences with educators.
These facets of my history shape the kind of scholarship that I pursue, where I strive to—
- Design new learning environments for STEM education that turn an empathetic eye towards fostering rich experiences for minoritized youth, for example, by linking science learning with writing in science fiction clubs, carefully designing game experiences to expose diverse learners to science, using social media tools to show how science is fused into everyday lives and selves, and creating STEM learning environments built into actual city and neighbor spaces so that young people and their families can see how science and play can be joined together
- Develop research-practice partnerships with educator and community partners to co-create solutions that are relevant to their needs, for example, to foreground an understanding of race, our histories, and racial justice as the focus of education improvement, as well as to help educators better support foster and homeless students who experience hardships as they traverse K-12 education systems
- Create experiences for minoritized students at UC Irvine through an IES Pathways Training Grant to learn about educational data science and analytics and build their identities and skills while preparing for future graduate study
At the heart of this scholarship is my interest in building learning experiences that support students from diverse racial identities and partnering with communities while centering issues of race in how we develop solutions.
In your area of research, what do you see as the greatest research needs or recommendations to address diversity and equity and improve the relevance of education research for diverse communities of students and families?
I think researchers need to realize that we are products of our own racialized histories, meaning that we bring our unique perspectives and blind spots to how we frame scholarship. The research questions we devise, what we decide is worthy to study, and our research design choices all come from our histories and ways we have been conditioned to understand the world and other people. Knowing this, I firmly believe that we need to build capacity for education researchers to understand how to be more empathetic in our approaches, to learn how to better partner with communities—not just inform them of our findings—to make research more relevant to local stakeholders, and finally to learn ways to step back and let others in the community have their voices centered in the research process. These skills and dispositions do not mean that we abandon what we know about how to do research or science. Instead, they give researchers tools to better understand how to value our own diverse histories and bring them into our research projects.
Beyond these methodological needs, I think that future research to address diversity and equity must continually go back to the lived experiences of the youth and families we are trying to reach. Even if research might illuminate trends and inequity, these findings mean little—and tell us little about what to do—unless we also couple our findings with an understanding of how our partners experience these inequities or lack of inclusion.
How can the broader education research community better support the careers and scholarship of researchers from underrepresented groups?
There are a few inflection points that I think are important to continually support the careers of researchers from minoritized groups. First, representation matters. Universities and organizations need to strongly encourage their faculty or workforce to continue to seek out and hire folks from underrepresented groups. This task should never end, or organizations can quickly move backward. Funding decisions for which scholars and what research endeavors are supported also need to continually ensure that diverse scholars can build their careers, and that innovative ideas begin to permeate through academic communities.
However, representation is not enough. Deliberate attempts to change workplace culture is vital to supporting the career growth of scholars. In my own life experience, I’ve often felt unsupported because the cultural norms, the behaviors that colleagues and supervisors enact, and the ways that a “system” continues to position someone as not welcome, help push individuals out. It is easy to spot egregious, clearly racist, situations. However, the most damaging experiences are usually enacted by well-meaning individuals who don’t understand how to be self-reflective about their blind spots and take responsibility for how their ways of working may hurt scholars from minoritized groups. This type of change cannot be made with a DEI workshop or other typical strategies that organizations take. Change can only happen if individuals can be truly self-reflexive, take personal responsibility for their own actions, and actively work from the perspective of minoritized scholars. This is slow work requiring multiple hard conversations and many years of trust-building.
What advice would you give to emerging scholars from underrepresented, minoritized groups that are pursuing a career in education research?
I am so excited about the next generation of scholars in education research. My advice is threefold.
- Trust that your past histories, experiences, and perspectives give you a unique insight into issues of education, teaching, and learning. The fun challenge is to continually seek out what makes your perspective unique and to confidently communicate this uniqueness to your academic communities.
- Seek out senior mentors who both support your vision and act in ways that position you for more impact and recognition. Early in my career, I had senior mentors who were co-PIs on grant-funded projects with me. This allowed me to further my research vision and gain entryway into important avenues of resources for scholarship. These acts of strategic mentorship propelled my career and put me in position to pay it forward to the next generation of scholars.
- Cultivate supporters outside of your home research institution and build long-term trust in relationships by continually doing good work with integrity and kindness. This type of work is slow, taking years to cultivate, and requires a lot of patience and faith that doing the right thing will pay off in the long run. However, building a career on good research, trusting relationships, and kindness builds a strong foundation from which scholars from minoritized groups can jump off from while withstanding many challenges one might face.
Produced by Katina Stapleton (Katina.Stapleton@ed.gov), co-Chair of the IES Diversity and Inclusion Council and training program officer for the National Center for Education Research.